How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Quote of the moment: Jamiel Shaw's aunt on Colbert immigration testimony

Photo by StreetFly JZ/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Police tape, May 2008


"Would it be comical if your daughter or your son or your niece or nephew was lying in the street dead, shot in the head, by someone living in this country illegally?"

- Althea Rae Shaw, aunt of Jamiel Shaw II, fatally shot in 2008 at 17 by an undocumented suspected gang member


Althea Rae Shaw, the aunt of the late Los Angeles High School football star, blasted comic Stephen Colbert for his occasionally serious but mostly humorous testimony last week on illegal immigration before the U.S. House of Representatives in an angry "open letter" opinion piece, posted yesterday on USC Annenberg's South Los Angeles reporting project, Intersections.

The letter, written last Friday and published in unedited form, has elicited a series of impassioned comments from readers, some who sympathize with the teen's grieving family, others who take offense to associations between "Illegal aliens" and crime. The language in both the letter and the comments is far from politically correct and generalizations abound. But the uncomfortable exchange provides a sobering glimpse into the racial tension that exists between African-Americans and Latinos in parts of Los Angeles, and how it has managed to creep into the immigration debate, at times exploited by entities that have little to do with either community.

Shaw writes about the hate-crime killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in Harbor Gateway, shot to death in 2006 by Jonathan Fajardo, a gang member who was 18 at the time (and who was sentenced to death Monday for her death and that of a potential witness). Shaw writes: "She was riding her bike across an imaginary line that the illegal alien gang members told each other, 'the next black person that crosses this line will die.' "

The reactions to Shaw's letter have been equally raw. From one reader, identified as Jesse:

It's hard to lose a family member, but I really wish the writer of this letter could gain a little perspective. Should we eradicate everyone in the world name Dahmer, just because one of them was a lunatic? I'm sure illegal "aliens" (what a real shitty word to use about another human being, by the way) have suffered plenty of abuse at the hands of American natives. Don't be surprised if their stories are far worse.

Another, identified as Jenny, wrote:
Of course her feelings are justified! Let's face it, while we have many celebrities and talking heads crying crocodile tears for criminal illegal aliens, not one of them has spoken out about the plight of innocent US citizens, like Jamiel Shaw Jr. Or Cheryl Greene, or so many others.The ethnic cleansing of black Americans from their communities by racist illegals, and that's going on from Los Angeles, to Harlem, NY.

Jamiel Shaw II died in March 2008 after being shot by Pedro Espinoza, a 19-year-old suspected 18th Street gang member who had been in the United States illegally since he was a minor. The murder became a cause celebre within the immigration restriction lobby and conservative commentators after it was revealed that Espinoza had been previously arrested on a weapons charge and served four months in county jail. Though deportable, he had been released the day before the shooting took place.

The shooting led to a heated debate over the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Order 40, a mandate that prevents officers from questioning people for the sole purpose of determining immigration status, with Shaw's family taking an active role in campaigning for a stricter policy. The City Council considered amending the order, but ultimately opted against it.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Shaw family against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for not having reported Espinoza to immigration authorities was dismissed earlier this year. Espinoza is awaiting trial for murder.

While the shooting was initially thought to be racially motivated, it was later reported that Shaw, who had no criminal record, nonetheless had friends who were involved in the Bloods, rivals of 18th Street.

Two and a half years later, the Shaw murder continues to be a divisive source of anger and pain. A reader identified as YesyAwesomeness posted this comment:

I'm sure the death of your nephew was horrible and all but you can't blame it on all immigrants. That would be like me blaming all black people for the group of black kids who stabed my uncle multiple times on his way to his car after work, blame all white people for the one white guy who was high behind the wheel and ran my cousin and his family off the road, and while doing so killing him.

The comment continued, stating the obvious:
If we were to blame a whole group for what one person did everyone would be divided.
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