By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Andrea Bazán said she has thick skin and is not easily frightened by death threats. But when the Hispanic activist arrived home one day to find her voice mail packed with profanity, and when she noticed a man watching her house in Durham, N.C., from a white commercial van with no license plates, her heart started to pound.
On a recent Monday night, she said, an unidentified man pounded on the front door of her house, frightening her. About a month earlier, on Labor Day, her house was broken into, and the smoke detectors were removed. "I am a mother. . . . I was scared," said Bazán, president of the Triangle Community Foundation in Durham and a board member for the National Council of La Raza. "I've been open with them about the fact that sometimes I have a bodyguard."
For some Hispanic activists such as Bazán, this is life on the front lines of the debate over illegal immigration. Leaders of the largest Hispanic civil rights groups -- the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and La Raza -- have received anonymous threats of violence and death. Bazán's home address and the names of her daughters were posted on a Web site.
Last month, a Raleigh man was convicted and sentenced to 45 days in federal prison for e-mailing death threats to La Raza and a Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Christopher Michael Szaz, 42, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of sending e-mail threats, and the U.S. attorneys said his prosecution was a message to others that sending anonymous threats and racist e-mail is a federal crime. Szaz, who said he was drunk when he sent the e-mails, must also perform 100 hours of community service at a Hispanic or a Muslim organization.
There are no statistics that specifically track threats against Latino activists. But leaders of several groups cite anecdotal evidence of increasing attempts at intimidation. "We've seen a rise in threats directed at Hispanic groups," said Janet Murguía, president and chief executive of La Raza. "We've seen a rise in hate groups. This is not just a feeling."
Some Latino leaders say the increased number of threats against Hispanic rights groups is part of a growth in attempts to intimidate Latino people. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Hispanics rose from 595 to 819 from 2003 to 2006, the year of the massive immigration demonstrations.
"I think people do feel afraid, and legitimately so," said John Trasviña, president and general counsel of MALDEF. "I'm really struck by how easily people can find me, how high their voices are, the frustration and anger, yet they're talking to a machine."
Brent Wilkes, executive director of LULAC, said: "Most of them don't threaten you individually. Most of them say there's going to be blood in the streets, or you're forcing us to take this kind of action, or you're creating a war. The part I haven't seen yet is an actual advocate like in the civil rights era being beaten."
That is because the intimidation cited by the Hispanic groups and the Southern Poverty Law Center is largely a fabrication, said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration in Raleigh. They are "trying to use those statements for a political purpose," he said. "We haven't seen any documented manifestation of violence against" the staff of the N.C. nonprofit advocacy group El Pueblo or any Hispanics in the state, he added.
Conversely, Gheen said, Americans are threatened by illegal immigrants. "Legal immigrants are screened for a criminal background," he said. "Illegal immigrants are not screened. El Pueblo . . . tries to label anybody who speaks out against illegal immigrants as hateful or mean-spirited."
Immigration has been a difficult subject since the mid-1980s, when an amnesty was extended to illegal immigrants, but federal reforms to curtail the migration -- such as tough sanctions against businesses that hire illegal immigrants -- were never enforced. The issue exploded again in 2006 when millions of illegal immigrants, many wearing the colors of their native countries and enthusiastically waving their flags, and their supporters took to the streets to demonstrate for workers' rights, a path to legal citizenship and other reforms.
Many Americans watched in disbelief, saying they were upset that 12 million to 15 million immigrants, mostly from Latin America, were living in the country illegally, and that hundreds of thousands more were sneaking across the border with Mexico every year to take jobs, buy houses and attend schools, often with falsified documents.
North Carolina's Hispanic population started growing in 2002, spiking sharply in recent years as undocumented immigrants chased the state's numerous meat processing and farm worker jobs. "I think people here were not prepared for this fast-growing community to come," said Bazán, a U.S. citizen and a native of Argentina.
Bazán helped to start El Pueblo, which lobbied North Carolina's General Assembly in 2005 to allow immigrants -- legal and illegal -- to pay in-state tuition at universities and colleges. North Carolinians objected, and the legislation failed. "It hit a raw nerve," Bazán said.
Hate mail poured into the offices of El Pueblo, prompting state police to monitor the group's computers. El Pueblo mounted cameras in the offices and told its employees to take precautions. "It changed the way we operated," Bazán said. "We were in this whirlwind."
Tony Asion, a Cuban American and former police officer who is executive director of El Pueblo, said he is concerned enough to take a different route home every day, check under his car, and order his staff members to never work or travel to events alone.
"My staff is scared to death," he said.