The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report titled "The Year in Hate," said it counted 888 hate groups in its latest tally, up from 844 in 2006 and 602 in 2000.
The most prominent of the organizations newly added to the list, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, vehemently rejected the "hate group" label, and questioned the law center's motives. FAIR said the center was using smear tactics to boost donations and stifle legitimate debate on immigration.
"Their banner may be 'Stop the hate' but it's really 'Stop the debate,'" said FAIR's president, Dan Stein. "Apparently you can't even articulate an argument for immigration reform without being smeared."
The law center's report contends there is a link between anti-immigrant activism and the significant rise in hate crimes against Latinos in recent years. According to the latest FBI statistics, 819 people were victimized by anti-Latino hate crimes in 2006, compared with 595 in 2003.
"The immigration debate has turned ugly and the result has been a growth in white supremacist hate groups and anti-Latino hate crime," said Mark Potok, director of the law center's Intelligence Project. "The majority of anti-Latino hate crimes are carried out by people who think they're attacking immigrants, and very likely undocumented immigrants."
Potok said hate groups were proliferating because a growing number of Americans were agitated by the immigration debate. He said many new groups had appeared in the border states of California, Texas and Arizona where illegal immigration has been a particularly volatile issue.
Critics of the law center, including FAIR, contend that the periodic reports on hate groups exaggerate the threat to public safety and inflate the total by including entities that are little more than Web sites or online chatrooms.
Potok acknowledged that some of the groups may be small and said it is impossible for outsiders to gauge the membership of most of the groups.
Among the largest categories of hate groups, Potok said, are neo-Nazi, white nationalist, racist skinhead and those with links to the Ku Klux Klan.
FAIR, which is frequently quoted by the media and whose officials often have testified before Congress, advocates an end to illegal immigration and tighter controls on legal immigration. In pursuing these goals, it says, "there should be no favoritism toward or discrimination against any person on the basis of race, color, or creed."
The law center said its decision to designate FAIR a hate group was based in part on the ideology of various people who established it, worked for it or donated to it over its nearly 30-year history. The center has issued a detailed report outlining its allegations, although little of that report deals with FAIR's recent activities.
The center's critique of FAIR was endorsed by a major Latino group, the National Council of La Raza. The council's vice president for advocacy and legislation, Cecilia Munoz, said FAIR's leaders were polished in public forums, but represented "a very unsavory set of views."
Stein described the assertions of bigotry as "a total fantasy."
Both FAIR and law center are relatively well known in the ranks of advocacy groups. The law center, which started as a small civil rights group in 1971, has amassed an endowment fund totaling $200 million as of October and it received nearly $29 million in grants and contributions in fiscal 2007.
FAIR claims more than 250,000 members and reported more than $4 million in contributions in 2006.
Stein, in addition to rejecting the "hate group" label, questioned the law center's linking of anti-immigrant sentiment to the recent increase in anti-Latino hate crimes. The data on such crimes is inexact and prone to misinterpretation, and some of the incidents classified as anti-Latino hate crimes involved violence between Latino gangs and non-Latino rivals, Stein said.
The law center has listed numerous incidents not fitting that profile. In one such assault, in February 2007, three men broke into a mobile home in Wright City, Mo., yelling "immigration enforcement" and beat an illegal immigrant from Mexico with a piece of lumber, according to police reports.
In Arkansas, where the Latino population has grown rapidly, there have been several recent violent incidents. In December, police said, a Hispanic man was fatally beaten in Lowell, Ark., after his nephew spoke Spanish to the assailant's girlfriend.
On the Net:
Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.splcenter.org/
© 2008 The Associated Press