More than 80 people gathered outside St. Francis Church in Geneva Sept. 7 to show their support for fair treatment of local Hispanic residents and farmworkers.
Farmers, human-rights activists, and representatives from local service and advocacy organizations spoke during the hourlong vigil, according to event organizer Mindy Aguilera. Several dozen community members held lighted candles as they listened to the speakers.
Aguilera said she organized the vigil in response to alleged harassment of Hispanic families by the Geneva Police Department in recent months. Aguilera said she knows of one family that she said was asked to leave Geneva City Hall because they were speaking Spanish. Another family reported that their home was raided by police officers with tear gas, and that the police officers laughed at and insulted the Hispanic residents, she said.
Geneva Police Chief Frank T. Pane, however, asserted that his officers treat Hispanics the same way they treat everyone else.
"We treat everyone equally here, to the best of my knowledge," Pane said.
The chief acknowledged that communication problems occasionally arise when members of his department interact with people who don’t speak English, but added that the police department currently has one Hispanic officer who often serves as an interpreter in such situations. Two Spanish-speaking members of the local Salvation Army also occasionally offer their services as interpreters, Pane said.
The Geneva Police Department has been actively trying to recruit more Spanish-speaking officers for the past three or four years, he added.
Aguilera cited problems experienced by Hispanics both in Geneva and throughout the nation. She noted that Hispanics who are in the country legally are sometimes stopped and detained for no apparent reason. And even though those who are living and working in the United States illegally are technically committing crimes, she said she doesn’t believe they deserve to be ridiculed or harassed.
"Regardless of if you’re a criminal or an illegal, you’re still a human being," Aguilera said. "We have all kinds of parole and house arrest for these people who have actually been convicted of a crime, but (nationwide) these people who are working and that don’t have a Social Security number are treated like animals. They are committing a crime, yes, but they shouldn’t be treated differently than any other person who’s committed a crime."