Hate Crimes Rise as Immigration Debate Heats Up

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009; 6:33 PM

U.S. civil rights leaders said today that an increase in hate crimes committed against Hispanics and people perceived to be immigrants in recent years "correlates closely" to the nation's increasingly contentious debate over immigration, faulting anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media and extremist group mobilization on the Internet.

The criticism came as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. pledged to advance legislation that would expand the federal government's ability to prosecute bias crimes.

Reid promised yesterday to bring a bill to a Senate vote by August, calling attacks such as last week's shooting of a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard by an avowed white supremacist "a form of domestic terrorism."

"We will not tolerate murder, or the threat of violence, masquerading as political activism," Holder told the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights today, citing the guard's death and the murder this month of a U.S. Army private at a military recruitment center in Little Rock, Ark., and an abortion provider at a church in Wichita, Kan. Holder said that the Justice Department "will use every tool" to protect constitutional rights and prosecute those who commit violence against abortion providers "to the fullest extent of the law."

Hate crimes targeted against Hispanic Americans increased 40 percent between 2003 and 2007, the most recent year in which FBI statistics are available, from 426 to 595 incidents, marking the fourth consecutive year of increases.

The report, issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund said some groups advocating for tighter immigration laws have invoked "the dehumanizing, racist stereotypes and bigotry of hate groups."

"Reasonable people will disagree . . . but the tone of discourse over comprehensive immigration reform needs to be changed, needs to be civil and sane," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

The report, titled "Confronting the New Faces of Hate," also criticized media personalities such as Lou Dobbs of CNN, saying the unintended consequence of "shrill commentaries" vilifying immigrants as invaders who spread disease and crime is "an atmosphere in which some people will act on these demonizing screeds" with violence.

"We're not suggesting anyone engage in censorship other than the kind of self-censorship that comes to individuals based on wisdom and common sense and good sense," said Wade Henderson, president of the leadership conference.

A spokeswoman for CNN declined to comment.

The FBI reported in October that the number of hate crime incidents dropped in 2007 by about 1 percent, to 7,624. But violence against Latinos and gay people bucked the trend. The number of hate crimes directed at gay men and lesbians increased about 6 percent, from 1,195 to 1,265, the FBI reported.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which was criticized in the LCCR report, said it was "another salvo against free speech by the pro-amnesty coalition . . . to de-legitimize any critic of mass immigration."

Dan Stein, president of the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, another target, accused critics of leading a "nasty smear campaign" that would be far more polarizing than productive in passing new legislation.

If liberal groups and Democratic leaders "appear not to provide even a forum to entertain opposing points of view . . . they are going to be fueling frustration and anger in this country that all points of view are not being considered fairly," Stein said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company