Latino Hate Crimes on the Rise

Southern Poverty Law Center statistics show that hate crimes reported against Latinos increased 35 percent between 2003 and 2006. According to the Center's Mark Potok, the spike reflects the nation's increasingly strident debate over illegal immigration.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Illegal immigration has been a hot issue the past few years. And according to a new report by a civil rights group, the attention has translated into more violence against Latinos. The report from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows a 35-percent rise in hate crimes against Hispanics between the years 2003 and 2006. This is based on data collected by the FBI.

We wondered if this spike simply reflects more reporting of hate crimes rather than more incidents. So we called the FBI. It confirmed the 35-percent jump in anti-Latino hate crimes, but also said more local law enforcement agencies are now sending in statistics.

I asked Billy Estok of the FBI how the bureau defines a hate crime.

Mr. BILLY ESTOK (Spokesman, Criminal Justice Information Services, FBI): A criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against race, religion, someone with a disability, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity or national origin.

SEABROOK: Those crimes, he said, range from intimidation and vandalism to assault and murder.

We turn now to Mark Potok, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project. He blames the increase in attacks on Hispanics on a, quote, "rancid atmosphere."

I asked him why his group's report focused on the years 2003 to 2006.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director of Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center): Those four years showed quite a dramatic jump - 35 percent. We used those numbers because they really seemed to reflect what was going on in the world that in those years, the situation in terms of the talk about immigrants, what was being said in the public square, had clearly grown worse. And, you know, our analysis suggested that these things were intimately related.

SEABROOK: What evidence do you have that the rise in the statistics of these hate crimes comes from what you were calling a rancid atmosphere?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I - it's not approvable thing, you know? I think that, you know, the typical hate criminal, studies have shown, really believes that he, typically, thinks that he is carrying out the wishes of the community, the kind of unspoken wishes of the community.

SEABROOK: In examples that you're taking about, do people say these as they're committing the crime?

Mr. POTOK: Well, one that comes to mind right away is the case of a white man in Louisiana who comes ashore after fishing on his boat, is stacking up his truck, getting ready to go home, sees two people who he takes to be Mexicans, says to someone, you know, I can't stand those people. I'm going to shoot them or something to that effect. And then in order to retrieve his shotgun, actually, has to smash his own truck window, which he has accidentally locked himself out of, grabbed that shotgun and fire on these people and injured both of them quite badly in the legs.

You know, that is the kind of crime we're seeing a lot of.

SEABROOK: Do you have any idea who's carrying out these sorts of attacks? I mean, I was looking at your compilation of the Southern Poverty Law Center's compilation of incidences that it highlights. And it seemed that there are quite a few from white supremacist gangs.

Mr. POTOK: That is true. But these are only supposed to be a kind of representation of all of the crimes out there. You know, the truth is that a vast majority of violence is carried out not by members of white supremacist groups but sort of workaday individuals, more or less normal people.

You know, that said, white supremacist groups, and groups on the radical right in general, have very much been taking advantage of this debate about immigration. I think there's very little question that the growth in hate groups that we've seen over the last six years, about a 40 percent growth, by our count, is attributable almost entirely to the debate and propaganda around the immigration question.

SEABROOK: It does seem interesting that there is a spike in this, and is there not a similar spike in hate crimes against, say, Asians or gay people?

Mr. POTOK: No, I don't think that that's apparent at all. I think that certainly the attention of the radical right, and to a large extent, the attention of the American people in general is turned towards illegal immigration, and, you know, I think as the result, that is really where we're seeing the spike.

SEABROOK: Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thanks very much, sir.

Mr. POTOK: Andrea, I hope that was helpful.

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