A Bronx tale: unreported crime and the undocumented Irish
Woodlawn is a leafy enclave on the northern tip of the Bronx, a short train ride or a long trek on the subway from Manhattan. It’s one of the few places in the city where you can buy Leitrim boxty or genuine Irish sausages, or spot semi-familiar names, such as the 24-hour car and limousine service called Break to the Border. And it’s a haven for the Irish community, both legal and undocumented.
Recently, the almost rural calm of the area has been disrupted by a spate of attacks, with Irish immigrants often the targets. In 2010, Barry McCormack was left in a coma after an assault on Katonah Avenue, the area’s main street. In 2011, Paul Caldwell was badly beaten three blocks from his apartment.
And last summer, Alisha Jordan, who was just 20 at the time, was attacked by a man wielding a brick, while walking home with a friend, also on Katonah Avenue.
All three are Irish-born, and all reported their crimes. There have been other alleged incidents but undocumented victims are often wary of reporting them. Despite tales of muggings, assaults and burglaries, crime statistics for the region have remained static, giving administrators little motivation for increasing the police presence.
“If it isn’t reported, it didn’t happen,” says Orla Kelleher, sitting in her office at the Aisling Irish Community Center, where she has served as executive director for the past eight years. “That’s a problem with a lot of incidents here. Particularly if somebody’s undocumented, they don’t want to report it for fear of jeopardising their illegal status here. So I would say some of them have literally taken their beating rather than reporting it.”
The phenomenon highlights the hardships that go with an undocumented status in the US, affecting individuals and the communities in which they live. People without legal status are ineligible for Medicaid or unemployment insurance. They cannot hold a driver’s licence or any official form of identification. Life can go on as normal until a problem appears and then it can swiftly become overwhelming: it may be impossible to visit a dying parent in Ireland or to drive a sick child to the doctor.
Approximately 625,000 unauthorised immigrants live in New York. Although Kelleher works and lives in Woodlawn, she says she couldn’t estimate how many locals live under the radar. Newcomers arrive at the Aisling Center looking for advice and information every week, and the policy is not to enquire about their status unless they bring it up themselves.
The cause of the apparent rise in crime in Woodlawn is unclear, but a likely source is the economic downturn, which has put increased financial pressure on the NYPD. The prospect of victims being unwilling to go to the police might in itself attract criminality, Kelleher suggests. This could make Irish immigrants more likely targets, though there seems to be no racist or anti-Irish sentiment behind the recent attacks.
Brian Mullen is a detective inspector in the 47th Precinct, which covers several communities in the Bronx, including Woodlawn. He says that crime figures for the area are steady. “It’s on par with last year. It hasn’t drastically increased,” he says, adding that the past month has seen a reduction in burglaries.
Mullen encourages victims to come forward and point out that the NYPD has a policy of not asking victims about their status. “We don’t ask if people are documented or undocumented. Everybody should report a crime.”
Woodlawn’s cosy ambience could itself account for the some of the growing anxieties about crime. In the words of Nollaig Cleary, it is “smaller than the smallest parish in Ireland”.
Cleary, who is vice chairwoman of the New York Ladies’ GAA, has lived in the area since 1993. “I think Woodlawn is such a tight-knit community that if something happens, everybody knows about it. That’s the worst part of it, probably even worse than it is in Ireland.”
On a recent afternoon in Rory Dolan’s pub on McLean Avenue, the atmosphere is relaxed and quiet. But in the women’s bathrooms, a yellow poster advertises an information session organised by the Aisling Center in response to “recent reports of sexual assault and rape, muggings and violent attacks in the McLean Ave/Woodlawn neighborhood”. The poster states: “We especially hope that anyone who has been the victim of any kind of assault [will] attend.”
The incidents have inspired some residents to set up a Facebook page called Take Woodlawn Back. Many notices on the page are community-minded – announcements that a missing dog has been found, or requests for food and materials to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Other posts share news about mobile-phone thefts and muggings, offering updates on criminal activity or suspicions of it.
Kelleher stresses that there is nothing consistent about the perpetrators of the crimes. “The attacks have all been different; there isn’t a pattern to them,” she says. In one recent case, a particularly violent rape, the attacker has been identified as Irish, Kelleher says, and although the victim reported the alleged crime, they did not go on to press charges.
Paul Caldwell has no memory of what happened at 3.30am one night in August 2011, when he was attacked as he walked home from a fundraiser for the local women’s GAA team. But it brought the 37-year-old bricklayer close to death.
“Everything from here to here was broken,” he says indicating his face, while sitting with a glass of water in a Woodlawn pub earlier this autumn. “This is all titanium, everything. My cheeks, my eye sockets, my jaws.”
A year after the assault, Caldwell is still unable to return to work. He feels strongly that victims of crime should report incidents to the police even if they are undocumented.
“Every week I hear of somebody getting attacked or somebody’s house getting broken into or somebody’s car getting smashed,” he says. “I’ve been chatting with a lot of police and they’re impartial to your status.”
Caldwell grew up Co Down, where “everyone experienced a little bit of trouble”, but he was never scared to walk the streets back home, and says he refuses to feel that way in New York.
Caldwell praises Woodlawn’s communal spirit. In the past few years, however, he has noticed a difference in the area. “It’s sad for me to see the old folk not sitting so much in Sean’s Deli,” he says. “You see them now and again but not so much. I think they’re a bit scared. And it’s sad in small ways to see the neighbourhood change.”
There is plenty of neighbourly behaviour in evidence in Woodlawn. After Hurricane Sandy, volunteers sent truckloads of donations to the Rockaways peninsula in Queens, ferrying in cleaning supplies and clothes, and 50 boys from a local soccer club spent their weekends cleaning out the homes of 12 elderly Irish people there. “While crime might be on the increase in general, people are so good at looking out for each other here,” Kelleher says.
A close community helps to soften the difficulties of life without papers, yet for many Irish immigrants who have lived there for years, the future is uncertain. How will they access healthcare and support in America as they grow older?
Kelleher says she is optimistic about the possibility of immigration reform. “I know plenty of people are here for 20 years or more but I’m hoping that their day will come soon,” she says.