NEW YORK immigrant groups are up in arms over what they contend is an effort to shut down their cultural support networks. A social club fire in March, which killed 87, prompted the city to launch a series of raids. Officials padlocked scores of illegal bars and halls that were potential fire hazards, many of them cramped basement spaces with improper ventilation and access.
But leaders in the largely Hispanic communities say the raids are shutting places immigrants need to socialize and to find support. They say the raids victimize impoverished patrons while diverting attention from the wealthy property owners who, they say, knowingly fail to meet safety and fire codes.
Hispanic immigrant groups have formed a loose-knit coalition to talk about political action and discuss a rise in what they see as ethnically and racially charged language in press coverage. Most jarring are recent articles discussing ``the brown people,'' referring to the likelihood that a majority of area residents will be nonwhite in the 21st century.
``Most of these people are not criminals, they're there to have a good time,'' says Howard Jordan, director of the New York State Assembly Task Force on New Americans. He says residents feel police are more interested in shutting down social clubs than in arresting drug dealers who may be operating nearby.
Social clubs affect an enormous group - there may be as many as 2 million Hispanics in the greater New York area. Large numbers come from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, with the biggest groups from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras, along with French-speaking Haitians and English-speaking Jamaicans. They play a key role in the local economy, providing cheap labor willing to tackle bottom-of-the-barrel assignments few others want.
Life in frenetic New York can be disorienting, and the clubs provide immigrants with a chance to be together with others from their countries, often from the same villages.
``Social clubs are the only type of permanent institution that helps immigrants preserve their culture and national identity in this society,'' says Ruben Quiroz of the Center for Immigrants Rights.
Although an estimated 600 to 700 are bar/dance clubs, many social clubs are cultural centers, featuring poetry, music, theater, and art exhibits. Hundreds are sports clubs where enthusiasts meet regularly to plan soccer, baseball, and football games, and - for West Indians - cricket matches. They also serve as information conduits on jobs, housing, and education matters.
Social clubs have long been a base for aspiring Hispanic politicians. A number of congressmen and other elected officials got their starts by visiting the clubs. Some immigrant leaders feel the raids, intentionally or not, can serve to destabilize the Hispanic community as a growing political force.
Jordan contends that it is in society's interest that the government regulate, not eliminate, social clubs.
``The net effect is when they don't make contributions to their own communities, you get the negatives: crime and other social problems that could be prevented,'' he says. He urges that funding be provided for programs that duplicate social-club functions: Schools, for example, could be opened to groups in the evening hours for their activities.
``If the government isn't going to provide adequate funding for new immigrant groups to participate, these people are going to have to start a parallel culture,'' Jordan says. ``These clubs develop because nobody who wants to participate culturally is provided a means.''