The national immigration debate is driving up the number of hate groups in the country and fueling attacks against Hispanics, according to a report released today by a civil rights group.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, said that the number of hate groups in the country rose last year to 888, up from 844 in 2006 and 602 in 2000.
The report "The Year in Hate" said the increase was fueled by anti-immigration rhetoric. Among the groups listed by SPLC as an organization based on hate is the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a well-known advocacy group whose leaders have testified before Congress about ending illegal immigration and restricting legal immigration.
"We've seen a remarkable growth in hate groups in the last six or seven years and it seems anecdotally clear that the growth is driven by the immigration debate in this county," said Mark Potok, the director of the center's Intelligence Project. "Virtually all the old line hate groups have turned their attention almost entirely to illegal immigration."
The center said that Hispanics are feeling the brunt of the anti-immigration anger.
According to the FBI, 819 people were victims of anti-Hispanic hate crimes in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, up from 763 in 2000 and 595 in 2003.
FAIR, which says it has 250,000 members, rejected the hate label.
"There is no level of hate crime that is acceptable -- period," said Bob Dane, the group's spokesman.
Dane criticized the center's report as biased and misleading, and accused it of attempting to smear FAIR and trying to stop valid discussion on immigration
"It's not about stopping the hate, it's about stopping the debate," he said.
FAIR said that the center's statistics were exaggerated and criticized the center for failing to define what constitutes a hate group.
The center listed FAIR as a hate group based on the purported discriminatory beliefs of one of its founders and some of its donors. Dane called those assertions "wild allegations."
Potok said the largest growth in hate groups was in California, Arizona and Texas, border states where immigration is a contentious political issue. "The majority of anti-Latino hate crimes are in fact directed against people thought to be undocumented immigrants," he said.
Jack Levin, a sociology professor at Northeastern University who specializes in hate groups, said the combination of the downturn in the economy and the surge in immigration has created hostility toward Hispanics.
"Whenever times get bad and unemployment starts to rise, we blame the newcomers," he said.