by Heather Schaub
Since 2000 the United States has witnessed a forty percent rise in hate groups. Many of these new hate groups have exploited the issue of illegal immigration to fuel their own agendas. Their ideology has flourished in the culture of fear that has taken hold in the American subconscious. After 9/11, panic about terrorism and distrust of foreigners became widespread, with a growing pattern of blaming immigrants for social ills or government shortcomings. Rather than focusing on creating a viable immigration system that recognizes U.S. dependence on foreign workers, mainstream rhetoric has demonized and criminalized the undocumented in our midst.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) publishes an annual summary of “The Year in Hate,” and their most recent report identified 844 hate groups in existence in the U.S. in 2006 (see www.splcenter.org). This startling report also documents the existence of 144 “nativist extremist” groups—those specifically motivated by xenophobia—that are now operating in 39 states. The heaviest proportion of these nativist extremist groups exists in the southwest, where 19 have been documented in Arizona, 25 in California, 13 in Texas, seven in Colorado and seven in Nevada.
In states outside of the border region, many of the nativist groups are local chapters of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps or the Minutemen Project, both of which sprung up from the original Minutemen operation in Cochise County, Arizona in April 2005. Minutemen chapters are active in fundraising, recruiting volunteers for vigilantism on the border, and conducting protests or surveillance in their home cities. Where permitted by state law, members openly yield firearms.
These groups target immigrants directly and are contributing racist messages to the right-wing anti-immigration movement. Rather than advocating for policy shifts such as tighter border security or enforcement of hiring laws for the undocumented, these groups target immigrants themselves. Vigilante border patrols are one strategy of such nativist hate groups; other methods include the surveillance of homes of Mexicans and Central Americans or the intimidation of Latino immigrants at day labor sites.
These xenophobic hate groups seem to be growing exponentially—almost 100 nativist groups have formed since April 2006. Many note that the rapid expansion of such hate groups has coincided with recent prominence of the “immigration issue” in the public policy arena. Moreover, the spring of 2006 witnessed historic immigration rallies and marches across the United States; hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand dignified and just treatment of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Nativist hate groups have responded in kind, increasing their numbers and expanding their tactics of offense. (See “Shoot, Shovel, Shut Up” on SPLC website for more information).
In his 2006 memoir, retired U.S. Customs Agent Lee Morgan, a 30-year veteran of the agency, cites the failures of contemporary immigration policy and links the changing climate to a post-9/11 shift. “This hype, this rhetoric, this phobia about Mexicans—I don’t think I ever heard it this bad before 9/11. To attach the working illegal alien, who has been coming here for years, to the terrorism issue is wrong, wrong, wrong!” (www.splcenter.org: On The Line).
Indeed, with the climate of fear perpetuated in the United States after 9/11, the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups have continued to push their own agenda. Such established hate groups have broadened their focus to jump in on the anti-immigration bandwagon. The “National Socialist Movement,” a prominent neo-Nazi group based in Minnesota scheduled the “Rock Against Illegal Immigration” concert following a 2006 Texas rally. Their website (http://www.nsm88.com/index2.html) announced a plan called “Throw Back the Wetback” for June of 2007, in which their candidate for the U.S. presidency inspected the U.S./Mexico border. Along with their message of Aryan superiority, the group posted the following message related to border security: “We White Americans may start organizing our own armed volunteers to defend the border if the U.S. government is unable or unwilling to do so. We also openly endorse the U.S. Border Patrol and call for their limitations to be lifted so they can do their job and defend the Borders.” Another established group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white separatist organization based in the south, advances its ideology by inflaming fears and resentments; it currently regards non-white immigration as a key issue.
This xenophobic hype generated by extremists has reached into the mainstream media and has fueled the anti-immigration movement. For example, conspiracy theories have begun to circulate; one alleges the Mexican annexation of the American Southwest. Another, found on the website of IllegalAliens.US (http://www.illegalaliens.us/aztlan.htm) alleges that prominent organizations such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund and National Council of La Raza support the returning of the American Southwest to Mexico. The average citizen who may not have personal ties with immigrants in their community may find him- or herself internalizing the racism and fear inherent in such accusations. Mark Potok, Director of the SPLC Intelligence Project states, “This kind of really vile propaganda begins in hate groups, makes its way out into the larger anti-immigration movement, and before you know it, winds up in places like ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight’ on CNN. This country needs a robust debate on immigration, but it does not need a debate based on racist allegations and bogus conspiracy theories.”
Such a reference to “Lou Dobbs Tonight” exemplifies one such instance in which nativist propoganda permeated mainstream media. In May 2007, Dobbs erroneously reported that “… there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past,” and he attributed this increase to “… unscreened illegal immigrants.” New York Times Columnist David Leonhardt looked into this “tenuous relationship with the truth” and reported that there have been 7,000 diagnosed cases of leprosy across thirty years in the Untied States with a steady decline since 1983.
Leonhardt’s report highlights the fact that “Dobbs often features and quotes activists with links to extremist and even openly racist groups…Yet Dobbs consistently fails to mention those connections.” Furthermore, there is a total unwillingness to acknowledge his wrongdoing; in response to the controversy, Dobbs stated: “If we reported it, it’s a fact.” Meanwhile Dobbs’ ratings have doubled in the past two years, and his manipulative reporting churns up fear and misinformation in the American public. The Nation posted a blog response to Lou Dobbs fa
lse claims on June 5, 2007, and the SPLC ran ads in The New York Times and USA Today calling on CNN to issue a correction (http://www.thenation.com/blogs/edcut?pid=202453). However, CNN has not taken steps to set the record straight and Dobbs has been hired as a commentator on CBS.
What has become increasingly clear is that without strong federal leadership on immigration, more communities are taking action into their own hands. In the words of retired customs agent Morgan, “If you can’t give the American people border security through the federal government, then the vigilantes will do it, for all the wrong reasons.”
As comprehensive immigration reform ground to a halt this summer and immigrant communities have continued to be scapegoats for social issues, municipalities around the nation have attempted to enact anti-immigrant housing ordinances. In the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, TX, local voters endorsed a law that prohibits landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. Civil rights groups filed suit and the city council repealed the original housing ordinance; nonetheless, voters approved a similar, but less restrictive ballot initiative in May 2007. Currently, only the mayor stands in loud opposition to these racist measures. Most unsettling about this example is the fact that such measures are not the work of a few extremists or unpopular politicians; instead, they represent a solid vote by U.S. citizens that are fearful of their immigrant neighbors and perceive a threat to their “American way of life.”
Further examples of such hate- and fear-inspired actions are abounding in communities across the country. This July, Arizona and Virginia enacted similarly punitive and oppressive anti-immigration legislation. Governor Napolitano of Arizona passed a state law, effective January 2008, which requires businesses to verify the legal status of their employees or risk having their licenses suspended or revoked. By decreasing work opportunities for immigrants, Napolitano expects migration flows to diminish greatly in Arizona. Across the country, the Board of County Supervisors of Prince William County, VA initiated a resolution to deny county services, including education and medical care, to illegal immigrants. The county also has broadened police powers to check immigration status. Loudoun County, VA followed with similar legislation, and other communities around the nation are watching closely to decide how they will deal locally with immigration.
Now that comprehensive immigration reform has stalled, there likely will be a further rise of hateful actions aimed at individuals—as well as racist laws—taking root in our communities. As activists and people of conscious, we need to be aware of the presence of hatred in our midst and groups propagating fear and division. The responsibility lies within each of us to question racism each time it springs up in ourselves or in our communities. In the post-9/11 fervor of our nation, we need more than ever to question this fear of “the other” and examine how we can strengthen partnerships locally and throughout our nation.
Heather Schaub was a volunteer at Annunciation House and Casa Peregrina in 2000-2001, is a current member of the AH Board of Directors since 2004, and lives in Seattle.