An ugly incident on Milwaukee’s south side where Mahud Villalaz, a 42-year-old U.S. citizen who immigrated from Peru, had acid thrown in his face is the tragic but inevitable byproduct of relentless scapegoating and demonizing of immigrants by elected officials from the president on down.
Immigrant bashing is being regularly employed for political gain. The vacuum of moral leadership at the highest levels of our government gives a license to hate and inspires ugly racist incidents and domestic terrorism by white supremacists. It’s no accident that there has been a 20% increase in the number of hate groups in America just since 2014. Fifteen such groups are operating in Wisconsin. The president and other top U.S. officials have effectively granted a prejudice permit for such activity.
The victim in the acid attack that police are investigating as a hate crime suffered second-degree burns to his face. Villalaz described his attacker as a white man in his 50s or 60s. He said the man first approached him to tell him he had parked illegally, but both his tone and his comments quickly turned ugly.
“Why did you come here and invade my country?” Villalaz recalled his assailant asking. After moving his truck to another block, Villalaz returned to enter the restaurant and was approached again by the man, who accused him of being in the U.S. illegally. Villalaz explained that he is a U.S. citizen, and that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Security video footage shows the attacker pointing at him and then tossing the acid at his face.
Others in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood are understandably shaken and frightened by the incident. A friend of Villalaz who lives on the same block as the restaurant told news reporters: “That random attack scares people. How is someone carrying something like that around?” referring to the acid.
Villalaz’s sister delivered a message to neighbors, saying her brother “wants everyone to be safe and when someone approaches you with hateful words, just walk away. Don’t argue with them, just walk away. People like this are convinced that if we don’t have white skin we don’t belong here. They won’t listen to you and will do something like this or even worse.”
This was no random act of violence. It bears all the markings of a hate crime — premeditated, prejudiced, plainly intended to terrorize selected targets. This is the essence of domestic terrorism. This is what divisive, hateful political rhetoric and xenophobic government actions invariably produce.
As a 35-year resident of the United States and longtime American citizen who gave up citizenship in India because of my love for this country and all that it offers, I am heartbroken to see this kind of criminal activity and the political behavior that encourages it.
Openness to foreigners has been a defining characteristic of America and is essential to who we are as a nation. Immigration has always made our country stronger, it has never made us weaker. Diversity is our great strength, it is our competitive advantage over other countries. We doom America to decline if we stop playing to our strengths.
This column originally ran in the Michigan Advance’s sister site, the Wisconsin Examiner. Read the column here.