Earlier this month, Tony Asion took the reins of El Pueblo, North Carolina's largest Latino advocacy organization. Founded in 1995, El Pueblo has pushed for controversial reform to benefit the state's ever-increasing Hispanic community, most recently in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and federal immigration legislation. Asion, who retired from the Delaware State Police, worked with the organization for five years before taking over as executive director. He spoke to the Independent about his plans.
What do you think are the most important issues facing Latinos in North Carolina?
One of the key things that I see that's happening is the lack of understanding of Latinos by non-Latinos. The way the media is portraying Latinos and the way a lot of politicians are attacking Latinos is giving the general public this view of Latinos that is kind of ugly. I think what we need to do is change that image folks have of us—change some of the myths and some of the lies.
We want a lot of the same things everybody else wants. We don't want drunk drivers that are Latinos on the road. We don't want gang bangers. We don't want criminals. Do we have criminals and drunk drivers? Of course we do. So does everybody else. But that's not who we are.
How do you begin to change those perceptions?
We would like to start a public media campaign to be able to do this. We are going to have to do some battling. There are anti-Latino or anti-immigrant groups out there that are going to fight us through the whole process.
What experience do you bring to your new position?
I spent 20 years as a law enforcement officer, so I have seen a lot of the conservative view of things from the other side. I hope to be able to unite the Latino and non-Latino community. On top of it all, I was a hostage negotiator. I think I should be able to negotiate this one.
Given your experience in law enforcement, what do you think about more and more local law enforcement agencies handling immigration cases?
That's a scary thought, and that's one of the things I hope I get police departments to see. Having been in law enforcement, I understand what motivates police departments to do things—one of them being money. All police departments throughout the country are strapped for cash, and when the federal government waves money and says, "Do this, and I'll give you money," they jump at it, sometimes not giving it a lot of thought.
In the process of doing this, we begin to alienate a whole group of people. And that's scary. Not only will these folks not report crimes when they are witnesses, but what ends up happening, and history can attest to this, these groups kind of begin to police themselves. Vigilante-type groups end up doing the policing. And you end up having to battle them. It becomes a worse situation.
What are the challenges in working with a community that's largely underground?
They get to a point where they go to work, they go home and they don't go out. If we have a meeting or something, and we invite them to come in, even at that, they're scared because they don't know who will be there.
Are you ready for all the hate mail you're going to receive?
I already get hate mail. The first piece of hate mail I got, I wrote back and said, "Thank you. You're my first." Depending on what kind of hate mail it is, I respond to them. If you want to understand me, listen to me, and I will listen to you. If you want to criticize me, I won't listen to you. I ask people to be open-minded enough to see both sides.