Immigration & the SPLC: Stopping 'Hate' Is Really about Stopping Debate

By CIS on March 10, 2010

Related Publications: Backgrounder, Transcript, Video

Contact: Jerry Kammer, 202-466-8185, gjk@cis.org

WASHINGTON (March 18, 2010) – After the collapse of the Senate amnesty bill in 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) joined with the National Council of La Raza and others to launch a campaign to smear the three largest mainstream groups making a case for tighter enforcement and lower immigration. At the center of this campaign was the designation of the Federation for American Immigration Reform as a “hate group” and the spread of that taint to Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies. The announced goal was to pressure journalists and policymakers not to meet or speak with these organizations. Touted as an effort to "stop the hate," it was a thinly disguised move to stifle debate.

The Center for Immigration Studies has released a new report examining the SPLC and its role in this campaign. "Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donors," authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Jerry Kammer, now a Senior Research Fellow at CIS.

Among the findings:

  • While the SPLC presented itself as a public-interest watchdog, it became a propaganda arm of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). Its designation of FAIR as a "hate group" was a publicity stunt in the service of La Raza's "Stop the Hate Campaign." That campaign, formally launched in early 2008, is actually an effort to stop the debate on national immigration policy.


  • The SPLC had demeaned FAIR for years, without tarring it with the toxic "hate group" smear. It tried to justify its timing of the hate group announcement – the month before the "Stop the Hate" campaign was launched – with a drummed-up accusation that FAIR had "crossed the Rubicon of hate" with a meeting between a single FAIR official and a delegation from a right-wing Belgian political party that was visiting Washington.


  • When the SPLC designates an organization as a "hate group," it places that organization on a list already occupied by such notorious groups as the Ku Klux Klan and racist skinheads. Yet SPLC director of research Heidi Beirich acknowledged that "we do not have a formal written criteria" for assigning a label intended to bring disgrace to its recipients. Beirich said this in a radio interview: "You qualify as a hate group if you treat an entire group of people for their internal characteristics, or their inherent characteristics, or you demean them in some way." The report observes: "A definition this flexible and imprecise could summon the SPLC Hate Patrol to the door of nearly any group of football fans, political activists, or Apple computer enthusiasts." It says such laxity is an invitation for the malice and mischief that are characteristic of the SPLC.


  • The SPLC's attacks on Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, are a classic guilt-by-association smear based on Beck's relationship with FAIR founder John Tanton. Noting that Beck says he is not a racist, the SPLC has acknowledged that "his website and other writings do not contradict that." Meanwhile, the SPLC ignores a large body of evidence that demonstrates his rejection of immigrant-bashing and his search for measured public debate.


  • The SPLC is equally reckless in its evaluation of Otis Graham, the most important figure in the founding of CIS and a member (and former chairman) of the CIS board. Graham is a respected scholar with a long history as an advocate of civil rights and environmental protections. In his 2008 memoir he reflected on his efforts to seek reduced immigration, "without disparaging immigrants or their cultures, reserving condemnation for our own incompetent and shortsighted public officials and ethnocentric lobbyists rather than the immigrants caught in the mighty currents of globalization."


  • Because of Tanton's role as the founder of FAIR, and because he was instrumental in the establishment of CIS and NumbersUSA, he can rightly be described as the father of the modern movement to restrict immigration. But the SPLC caricature of Tanton as a sinister "Puppeteer" manipulating the groups at will is absurd. Nevertheless, the CIS report also criticizes Tanton, describing his big-tent philosophy that embraces some figures who do not play a constructive role in the immigration debate. It also says that he has "a tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration."


  • The report shows that the SPLC has distorted many of Tanton's comments, egregiously taking them out of context to justify their claims of bigotry. It shows that many of Tanton's concerns have also been raised by serious students of immigration.


  • The SPLC/La Raza campaign to delegitimize FAIR, NumbersUSA, and CIS diverts attention from substantial issues about immigration policy. The report cites the work of journalists and scholars who acknowledge that there are sound, respectable reasons to want to restrict immigration, both legal and illegal.


  • Laird Wilcox, an archivist of volatile political movements who has studied the SPLC, called it a prime example of the "anti-racist industry afoot in the United States that has attracted bullying, moralizing fanatics." He said the SPLC has benefited from the work of cooperative reporters who have written about the "hate group" accusation without questioning the SPLC's tactics and claims and without reporting that the SPLC is an ally of the NCLR "Stop the Hate" campaign.


  • The SPLC has parroted the NCLR line in denying the complexity of the effects of immigration. It has also helped NCLR gloss over the historically and culturally charged meaning of "La Raza." The term comes from Mexican nationalist and intellectual Jose Vasconcelos, who wrote of the special qualities of "la raza cosmica." In the 1960s the term was adopted by Mexican-American nationalism as it adopted a radical posture of resistance.


  • Mexican American leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Rep. Henry Gonzalez were sharply critical of the political uses of the term "la raza." Chavez warned, "Some people don't look at it as racism, but when you say la raza, you are saying an anti-gringo thing, and our fear is that it won't stop there."


  • The report acknowledges that the SPLC and founder Morris Dees have done admirable work in combating the Ku Klux Klan. But it cites journalistic exposés that show how the SPLC has milked that early success to raise tens of millions of dollars. In a 1994 editorial, the Montgomery Advertiser wrote that the SPLC "focuses on the anti-Klan theme not because the Klan is a major threat, but because it plays well with liberal donors."


  • The attack on FAIR, NumbersUSA, and CIS is consistent with Morris Dees' long history of sensationalism and dishonesty in arousing fear among his liberal donors. As Dees said in 1988, "The people who will give big money through the mail are either on the Far Right or the Far Left. They're true believers. You can't fire them up with a middle-of-the-road cause or candidate. You've got to have someone who can arouse people."


  • The report calls the SPLC "the cult of Morris Dees." It cites a fundraising appeal from December 15, 2009 – Dees' 73rd birthday. It says the e-mailed appeal featured "the SPLC's trademark concoction of joyful celebration, somber sentiment, cold commerce, and cult-like glorification of Dees."


  • The report concludes that the SPLC smear campaign, "demonstrates that the Southern Poverty Law Center has become a peddler of its own brand of self-righteous hate. It is a center of intolerance, marked by a poverty of ideas, a dependence on dishonesty, and a lack of fundamental decency."