JSPAN Asks the Expert: Are Immigrants Increasingly Victimized in this Country?

Reported by Mort Levine, Executive Director, JSPAN Richard Cohen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama addressed JSPAN Board members at their meeting on November 20. Mr. Cohen focused his remarks on the increasing proliferation in the United States of hate crimes directed at immigrants. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was founded in 1971 as a small civil rights law firm. Today, the SPLC is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of hate groups. In 1981, the SPLC began investigating hate activity in response to a resurgence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In recent years, there has been a 40% rise in the number of active hate groups. The Imperial Klan of America, for example, currently has 34 chapters in 17 states. Reliable statistics on hate crimes are difficult to determine. Such crimes are usually based on a perceived fear or hate of the "other," someone who comes from "some place else" and should not be here, or who is "inferior." Vilification of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, is occurring constantly and on many levels. Mr. Cohen stated that Lou Dobbs, commentator on CNN, has been very irresponsible in his coverage of immigrant issues. In a recent report, for instance, while talking about diseases carried by immigrants, he stated that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the last three years among immigrants. The correct statistic, however, is 7,000 cases in the last 30 years. Dobbs has, so far, refused to air a correction. From Mr. Cohen's perspective, the guest worker program is turning out to be another form of indentured servitude. A worker can only work for the person who sponsored him/her. In addition, the worker has no recourse if abused, nor is legal support available. Many workers pay exorbitant fees to get to this country. When they finally get here, they find that they are not paid enough or do not receive what had been promised to them, causing them to look for alternative work - as undocumented workers. Mr. Cohen estimated that 80% of the agricultural workforce is comprised of undocumented migrants. We are all dependent on this illegal labor force which harvests our crops, provides our household help, takes care of our children and maintains our gardens. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is part of the problem. Small Mexican farmers cannot compete with American agri-business, thereby causing wide-spread unemployment in Mexico. The organization Friends of Farm Workers, located in Philadelphia and serving the entire state, is active in workers' rights. Its efforts are directed toward the improvement of the living and working conditions of indigent farm workers, mushroom workers, food processing workers and workers from immigrant and migrant communities. Richard Cohen concluded his remarks by noting that there has always been a significant amount of hate activity in Pennsylvania. The SPLC currently tracks 27 different hate groups in the state. The most active are the skin-head groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center has agreed to consult with JSPAN in the future on issues of concern to both of our organizations. JSPAN views the SPLC as a valuable expert resource, and we appreciate its input on our policy decisions. To learn more about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, click here.