Thursday, Apr 24, 2014
Local News

Anxiety hits migrant workers after spurt of robberies


Published:

AVON PARK -- Oct. 23, an Hispanic family, some of whom are migrant workers, was robbed by two men in Lake Placid.

Dec. 27, a Highlands County deputy posing as a migrant worker after the robberies of several migrant workers in recent weeks was attacked and robbed by two men.

And even back in 2007, Hispanics were the targets during a robbery and a shooting in Lake Placid.

Over the past seven years, as the Hispanic population of Highlands County continues to grow -- especially the influx of those looking for work in local agriculture and building -- incidences of crime targeting them also grows.

Often, the reason Hispanic residents are being targeted is because they often carry around cash rather than having bank accounts, particularly those within the country illegally and aren't residents, which robbers tend to notice. One of the major hurdle facing the Highlands County Sheriff's Office is that victims often fear being deported if they report crimes.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17,157 of the county's 100,000 residents, 17.4 percent, listed themselves as Hispanic -- a 63 percent increase from 2000.

A short walk around Avon Park Tuesday revealed a general feeling of anxiety among some of the area's Hispanic residents, particularly migrant workers.

Outside of Avon Park's Taquerio Merlo, 1004 W. Main St. -- an Hispanic grocer and cafeteria -- Antonio, 42, who works as a season orange harvester, said he's become much more fearful over the past two months. He said he had a friend attacked but it wasn't reported to officials.

"We don't go out and about at night at all. We can't go," he said in Spanish.

Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said Tuesday county statistics on crimes targeting Hispanics weren't immediately available and would necessitate a public records request. However, she said no matter their origins, everyone should follow the same guidelines and common sense to avoid being singled out.

Hays said everyone should do most of their shopping in daylight; don't carry around large amounts of cash; keep a close eye on credit cards and personal identifiers; don't flaunt expensive jewelry; and mostly, try to walk in groups.

"It's not just Hispanics but sometimes they're the ones who are afraid to report things," she said. "We're not immigration. We're concerned about all their safety, everyone that resides in the community."

Not far from the Highlands County Sheriff's Office Avon Park substation, migrant worker Luis, 40, a native of Honduras who lives in Avon Park, said he's become more concerned about his safety over the past year of living in the city. He said he gave up going out alone at night.

"I am much more scared. But I try not to show it. I don't go out much at night," he said,

Highlands County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Mark Schrader said over the past 12 months, there were 40 reported robberies of individuals countywide, with 23 of them in the north district, including Avon Park. He said a significant number of incidences occur in Sun 'N Lakes, south of Lake Placid, which has a sizeable Hispanic population.

What Schrader is mostly concerned about is the safety of the public -- all races and nationalities.

"It's something we've seen over the years. A lot of the Mexicans have cash on them and other valuables. They're jumped and beat down and have whatever valuables they have taken from them. If they're illegals, law enforcement doesn't care; don't be afraid to contact us. We're not immigration and nothing is going to happen to them because of their immigration status."

At Taquerio Merlo, Sebring's Mario, his wife, son and five daughters walked toward the store from the parking lot. The seasonal citrus worker said although he doesn't have a lot of fear, he still doesn't carry much cash on him. He said the key is being sensible.

"Just mind your own business and be aware," he said.

pcatala@highlandstoday.com

(863) 386-5855

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