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Beirich of SPLC Says that Rise of Hate Groups in US Largely Due to Anti-immigration Sentiments

By Connor Showalter and Shannon Hoffman
Video Editing by Connor Showalter

Is media a reliable source for information? It should be, but it can depend on where you find it and whether it’s tainted with a bias. According to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), biased media fuels misconception in the United States about immigration.

Heidi Beirich speaks at the Frederick Douglass event about national and local anti-immigration sentiments. Beirich is a part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in the U.S. (Shannon Hoffman photo)

Beirich was a keynote speaker at the Frederick Douglass Conference on Thursday, April 16 in the Kehr Union Ballroom. Her speech, “Nativism Resurgent: A Look at the Modern Anti-Immigrant Movement” touched on untrustworthy sources and biased media figures who influence perceptions on the topic.

The SPLC is a nonprofit group that looks to monitor hate groups and other extremists across the nation to ensure safety. The organization is headquartered in Alabama and operates a defense system against people who hold racist ideals and anti-immigration motives.

According to the SPLC, the number of hate groups has increased from 602 in 2000 to 926 in 2008, a 65% increase over what Beirich calls a relatively short period of time. “That is completely driven by immigration, meaning the hate group ranks are growing because of fears of our demographics changing. Sort of the browning of America, the Latinos changing America’s complexion.”

Although this was Beirich’s first visit to Bloomsburg, she is familiar with immigration feelings of the area. She names Lou Barletta, mayor of Hazleton, Pa., as an anti-immigration leader and one who spreads misconception about immigrants.

He attempted in 2006 to pass a powerful ordinance called the Illegal Immigrant Reform Act (IIRA), discouraging undocumented immigrants to call Hazleton “home.”

The ordinance suggests regulation of illegal immigrants working and dwelling in Hazleton, defining an “Illegal Alien” in accordance with the terms of United States Code Title 8. It explains that an immigrant will not be deemed illegal until verified by the federal government, but the document was shot down as unconstitutional, as immigration is a federal issue not to be handled by smaller courts.

Beirich does not believe that the ordinance targeted only illegal immigrants. It includes fines for landlords who lease or rent to “so-called illegals,” as explained by Beirich in an interview with BU Now, and says that it “was really one of the first attempts to do something like that in the U.S.”

When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged Barletta and his ordinance in court, Barletta defended the intentions on CNN: “That’s the great part about Hazleton. It’s so diverse and the ethnic backgrounds of the individuals that live there,” he said. “Everyone is welcome, we’re not rolling up the welcome mat. However, illegal aliens are much different than legal immigratns and as soon as we divide the two we’re talking about two different groups of people.”

“This is not about ethnicity. It’s about legality,” he continued.

Beirich calls Barletta a darling of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit outfit with the goal of reforming America’s Immigration policy. Often referenced by their acronym, FAIR, Beirich says, “They should be called UNFAIR.” The outfit is listed as a hate group by SPLC.

What many find concerning are the statistics Barletta used to promote the ordinance; former Bloomsburg grad and speaker who visited the campus earlier this month, Jamie Longazel, researched the topic. While Barletta was stating that one-third of all recent crimes were committed by illegals, Longazel found that only 10 of 235, or 4.3% of crimes in Hazleton between 2001 and 2006 were committed by illegal aliens. Longazel did not respond to BU Now inquiries as to where he found the statistics, but the discrepancy was also mentioned in a leftist blog, the Right Wing Watch, in 2007. The same article suggests that Barletta found his statistics from Save Our State, an organization that the SPLC lists as a hate group based in California. BU Now contacted Barletta through e-mail and is currently awaiting a response.

The Mayor has been a guest on the Lou Dobbs show on CNN multiple times, a journalist that Beirich says contributes to the spread of immigration misconceptions. “He’s accused them wrongly of bringing leprosy into the country, he’s accused them wrongly of filling a third of all of the jails, he’s accused them ruining the economy. You name it, he’s accused immigrants of it,” said Beirich.

Heidi Beirich, SPLC at Bloomsburg University from Shannon Hoffman on Vimeo.

She told BU Now about the concern of the SPLC of the mainstream media promoting these conceptions. “I get upset with reporters who are talking about immigration issues who go to groups that we either list as hate grups or extremest groups to discuss these things with them,” said Beirich, “when they have notable academics they can talk to, organizations like Pew who do survey data on these things; you have former government officials who can talk knowledgabley about immigration issues. You don’t need to go to some wacko.”

Beirich said that one of Dobb’s most highly-criticized claims is that that one-third of immigrants fill our jails. Recent Pew research reveals that there has been a sharp increase of Latino and Hispanic non-citizens sentenced Federal offenders. The article explains that the increase can be attributed to the higher number of illegal immigrants in the country (3.9 million in 1992 to 11.9 million in 2008) and the increased efforts to crack down on illegal immigration over the past years. But significantly more undocumented Latino and Hispanic immigrants were sentenced for immigration violations rather than drug-related or other crimes.

The study shows that among all Hispanic sentences in federal courts in 2007, 48% were due to immigration offenses, while 37% were drug related, and 15% for other offenses. Of undocumented Latino offenders, more than 61% were sentenced for immigration offenses, 30% for drug offenses and 9% for all other offenses. Though citizen tax dollars still cover the incarcerations, it is relevant that most of the offenses are non-violent and non-drug related, despite common beliefs.

“The only way you can fight back against this is to fight back with the facts,” said Beirich. She explained that education can help to combat the influence of hate groups. She said that through lectures like the one organized by BU’s Frederick Douglass Institute , people will become more informed about how immigration does and does not influence the country.