WASHINGTON - Leading civil rights groups today denounced the rise in hate crimes taking place in the United States, especially against Hispanics, and called for passage of a proposal that would ensure federal jurisdiction when local officials fail to act.
Hate crimes against Hispanics have risen steadily for the last four
years, and crimes against African-American, Asian-American, and Jewish
people, as well as gays and lesbians, all increased last year,
according to FBI statistics gathered for its Uniform Crime Reporting
In recent weeks alone several
incidents have taken place, including the murder of 37-year-old
Ecuadorian citizen Marcello Lucero by a group of Long Island teenagers,
cross-burnings in New Jersey, and the timely arrest of skinheads planning to assassinate Barack Obama in Tennessee.
"The wave of hate that is seeping through our communities threatens the
fabric of our nation and is costing lives. Americans will not be cowed
by those trying to advance intolerance -- we must stand up to the
presence of hate groups and extremists in our communities and speak with one voice to say we will not be dehumanized," argued Janet Murguía, director of the National Council of La Raza, the oldest and largest Hispanic-American civil rights organization.
MurguÃa was joined by representatives of African-American,
Asian-American, and Jewish groups concerned about the rise in hate
crimes, especially in the context of the election of Obama as president
and the deteriorating economic situation.
Speakers at the Washington, DC press conference included Mark Moriel of the National Urban League, who stressed the importance of enforcing laws currently on the books.
"We fought long and hard" for these laws; they are not "ornaments" but
rather "tools to be used" to prosecute those responsible for hate
crimes, said Moriel, adding: "We will not remain silent" in the face of
attacks on people due to their ethnic origin, religion, or gender.
Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,
urged passage, "early on," of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime
Prevention (LLEHCP) Act to expand the federal reach in the case of hate
crimes, strengthen enforcement, and improve reporting of such crimes.
At present, local officials have wide latitude in defining what
constitutes a hate crime, and depending on the local environment, may
ignore many crimes meant to be covered under existing legislation.
The bill passed the House of Representatives last year but was dropped during negotiations in the Senate. Civil rights leaders
are "optimistic" that the LLEHCP Act will be taken up early by the
incoming Congress and administration, according to Henderson.
Need for new legislation, the
panelists agreed, stems in part from the fact that local officials may
be the very figures encouraging hate crimes; for example, speaking out
against those perceived to be taking jobs or using or abusing services
-- a major argument in the ongoing debate over immigration.
According to Peter Zamora of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, some leaders in Suffolk Country, where Lucero was killed, "have made a career of promoting hate."
Controversial media pundits such as Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs
and a rise in Internet-based sites promoting hate also play a key role
in spurring individuals to commit racially or ethnically motivated
crimes, according to the speakers.
The boys arrested for stabbing Marcelo Lucero to death, all under 18,
had simply decided to "go beat up a Mexican," according to media
"That hate that has trickled down to a new generation is very
disturbing," said the National Council of La Raza's MurguÃa after
Lucero's death, noting that the growing climate of hate surrounding the
immigration debate was partly responsible.
"Words have consequences," she said, "and hateful words have hateful consequences."