CHICAGO — As the horrifying details emerged in the Baby Hope case, the 22-year-old mystery of the little girl found dead in a cooler on the side of a Manhattan highway, I felt like shouting, “This is not about unlawful immigrants.”
Baby Hope has now been identified as Anjelica Castillo, who was 4 years old when construction workers found her body on July 23, 1991. Detectives on the case then spent two decades trying to find her killer or her family — the girl had never been reported missing.
After an annual awareness drive sponsored by New York police, detectives found a woman who led them to the girl’s family. The family members, immigrants from Mexico and some of them living in the country illegally, helped police track down the victim’s cousin, who confessed to sexually abusing and murdering Anjelica and then dumping her body with the help of one of his sisters.
I was sure the Baby Hope case would be used by both the left and the right to “prove” their long-standing beliefs about immigration. Sure enough, news coverage and blogosphere chatter spread predictably. Some led with the immigration status of the child’s killer to reinforce the view that unauthorized immigrants are violent criminals, while others made the story the center of their umpteenth pitch for why local police should not cooperate with immigration officials.
The blog ThinkProgress.org point-blank said that the victim’s mother, Margarita Castillo, did not go to police for fear of deportation.
But ThinkProgress doesn’t know that. No one really knows what circumstances led an entire family to remain hushed about the mysterious disappearance of a young child.
When she went missing, the little girl was living with seven family members, none of whom ever came forward with details about her disappearance until the 22nd annual community outreach effort by the detectives who were still dogging the case.
Yes, the authorities speculate that worries about legal status came into play. But there were obviously many layers of dysfunction in the family that fed into the group silence. These include broken marriages, sibling alliances, long estrangements, shifting households and other turmoil — all of which can be found with alarming regularity in the native-born population.
Margarita Castillo told Spanish-language reporters from Telemundo that she didn’t even know that two of her daughters were missing. Castillo said her husband had taken the two youngest of their three daughters to live with him and that she believed they were in his care. Castillo hadn’t seen Anjelica since the child was 1.
When pressed about why she didn’t go to police when one daughter, but not Anjelica, was returned to her, she replied that she “was scared to not be heard, of not knowing the language … that was my error.” Though it’s reasonable to imagine how immigration status could have played into her fears, Castillo didn’t mention it as a reason for her inaction.
In truth, though it’s a terribly sad incident, there are no policy implications to be drawn from this case.
Whenever something — anything, whether good or bad — happens in the Latino community, people try to use it to reinforce their longstanding stereotyped beliefs.
If a Latino donates a kidney to his or her sick mother, it’s not just about universal parent-child bonds but Hispanics’ legendary love of their families. Likewise, when a Latino man does something heinous, it feeds the narrative that immigrants are dangerous.
There were those who strained to put Ariel Castro — the Cleveland kidnapper who kept three neighborhood women in captivity for years — into the neat box of “violently criminal immigrant,” but it was to no avail. Castro was a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico who spent almost his entire life in Ohio.
There’s really no way to know whether Margarita Castillo would have gone to the police about her missing daughter had she been in possession of both legal status and fluency in English.
Who can say why anyone does what they do? Human nature is occasionally predictable but frequently a mystery. And no amount of cultural attribution can predict or prevent misdeeds and lost potential among any racial or ethnic group.
Unfortunately, as it seems to be the case here, sometimes a tragedy, though it was a horrific murder, is only that.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.