Wilmington, NC – It happened in the gravel parking lot of a local Mexican restaurant a little after closing time. The last waiter to leave work that night stepped outside at the end of his shift and found himself facing a man with a gun.
"He told me to give him my money But because this had never happened to me in my life, neither here or in Mexico, I was startled. I was in shock," the man recalls, an illegal immigrant who asked not to be named in this story. Instead of handing over his money, the man froze, so the robber stuck a hand in his pocket and took the waiter's wallet.
Stories like this, told in Spanish by frightened men, are becoming all too common in the Wilmington area. Analysis of crime reports shows that in the last year, victims with Hispanic names made up one in four of Wilmington's robbery victims. It's a trend that's worrying Hispanic leaders and local law enforcement.
Wilmington police chief Ralph Evangelous doesn't mince words; he's worried about this trend. "There's an element in our community that's preying on them, and quite violently," he says. "I mean they're brutalizing them, shooting at them, shooting them, stabbing them. They're really, it's almost like a prey in the jungle."
The stories in the police blotter are chilling. In a case early this year, a robber pistol-whipped and then shot a victim in the mouth when he tried to resist. And in March, a truckload of young men picked up a Hispanic man stranded on a roadside, robbed and abandoned him.
The latest national figures, from the 2005 federal Crime Victims Survey, found that Hispanics were victims of robbery nearly twice as often as any other population group. And while armed robbery is on the rise across the board in Wilmington, people who know the issues say several factors make immigrants especially vulnerable.
According to Anna Lee with Centro Latino, the trouble starts with cash, and the fact that many immigrants carry it instead of trusting banks.
Lee blames the wariness toward financial institutions partly on immigrants' experiences in their home countries, and partly on the difficulty of opening an American bank account without documentation.
Criminals outside the Latino community seem to have picked up on this fact, too; the average Hispanic victim lost nearly $300 per robbery.
For immigrants though, often money isn't the most valuable thing in their wallets, it's their identification papers.
This is what hurt me the most in the whole situation, the local waiter said, "more even than the fright, more than anything, because he left me without my [driver's] license, without my electoral credential from my country, without anything."
According to Anna Lee, many times those lost documents are the only ID immigrants have, and are often irreplaceable.
Police and community workers say another factor that makes immigrants an easier target is that many don't report the crime. They've had too many bad encounters with corrupt law enforcement in their own countries, and they bring that bias with them here.
But Irene Edwards, director of the education center Voces Latinas says immigrants have plenty of real worries about local police, too.
She counts them off: "There's the fear of deportation, the fear of not knowing what to do or what to say or how to act. The fear of being discriminated against, racism in the police department."
Whether those concerns are justified or not, Wilmington police are trying to improve their relationship with the Hispanic community, using interviews with local Spanish media and meetings with Latino groups.
On a recent afternoon, restless toddlers swirl around eight women gathered at Voces Latinas. They've come to question the WPD's outreach officer, Crystal Williamson, about everything from immigration status to using 911. The basic nature of their questions suggests how hard it can be for those unfamiliar with the American legal system to risk becoming entangled in it.
When asked if he's worried about criticism for turning a blind eye to illegal immigration, police chief Ralph Evangelous is indignant. Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, he says, protecting the public is his. Evangelous remembers the story of a Latino man shot in the face for his wallet.
The first thing he wanted to do once he got out of the hospital was go back home, the Chief concludes. "He left. And some people say 'good riddance.' I say, 'shame on you for feeling that way.' Because that's a human being and nobody, nobody should be victimized like that."
But any ties Evangelous manages to forge with the immigrant community may be tenuous. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly would encourage local law enforcement to take a more active role in enforcing immigration laws, potentially widening the gulf between future victims, and those charged with protecting them.