By Dave Wilcox
Last week, my organization, an immigration-control advocate, publicly released a 2016 disciplinary opinion from the Obama-era U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officially reprimanding a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorney for unprofessional and frivolous behavior in immigration court proceedings.
For decades, DOJ’s asked us to contribute briefs in difficult and complex immigration cases and in one such case the SPLC, a tax-exempt “anti-hate” organization, took it upon itself to file an unsolicited brief with the immigration court attacking us as “white supremacist,” “anti-Semitic,” and “anti-Catholic.” It was an odd bit of name-calling considering my small team happens to include Catholics, Jews, and non-whites.
Thankfully, even the Obama DOJ saw the move as a shameful and discreditable attack. DOJ’s disciplinary counsel fulsomely reprimanded the SPLC attorney, as well as attorneys from its partner-organizations, sending them a letter calling their attacks “frivolous behavior,” “derogatory name-calling,” and generally showing “a lack of professionalism.” DOJ also stated that the involved attorneys abused the briefing process and failed to aid the administration of justice.
DOJ’s reprimand actually builds on an existing trend for the SPLC. Over the last few years, the group’s “shoot-first, debate-never” approach has been skewered by a number of outlets, including Philanthropy Roundtable, Harpers, Counterpunch, Weekly Standard, Huffington Post, Reason, Washington Times, and Foreign Policy. The criticism seems to be correlated with the group’s ever-evolving and increasingly incoherent “hate-group” standard, a problematic feature inherent in the group’s business-model. Like the proverbial shark that has to keep swimming, the SPLC must keep fear-mongering and expanding its “hate-group” narrative lest its donors begin to stray. As JoAnn Wypijewski at The Nation once wrote, the SPLC knows “hate sells” and, hence, must continue telling donors that the Klan’s just around the corner.
But with the KKK now basically extinct, what’s a “hate-crusader” like the SPLC to do? Apart from opening up an attack on us (31 years after our founding), the SPLC has recently labelled opponents of Common Core as “far-right extremists,” they’ve attacked almost every GOP presidential candidate as either homophobic or racist this past election cycle, and they’ve even attacked The Hobbit for apparently reinforcing the “White Patriarchy.”
So inflammatory and irresponsible is the group’s “hate-watch” commentary, in 2012 they inspired an armed gay-rights activist to enter the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council (a pro-Christian “hate organization” according to the SPLC) in an attempt to, in his words, shoot and kill “as many people as possible.”
Why their “hate-expertise” can’t be taken seriously was reinforced recently when they reportedly snuck-in death statistics from Islam-inspired terrorist-attacks, including Florida’s Pulse Club, in a report that “proved” the US was undergoing a surge in “radical-right” terrorism.
But arbitrariness has apparently been the group’s maxim for some time. In 2007, they teamed up with the Hispanic lobbying group, La Raza, when the latter mounted a massive public relations-push in support of the Kennedy-McCain amnesty bill. As part of the initiative, the SPLC named and shamed as a “hate group” the bill’s biggest opponent, the decades-old Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR, our sister organization). La Raza, which means “The Race” in Spanish, is an explicitly race-centric organization that has close ties with and once gave an award to Jose Angel Gutierrez, a former leader of the ethno-nationalist Unida Raza party (‘United Race’) and who once declared, “We have got to eliminate the gringo, and what I mean by that is if the worst comes to the worst, we have got to kill him.”
Then there’s the SPLC’s mercurial founder, Morris Dees. Despite his outward appearance as a fighter of “hate,” before starting the group, Dees reportedly worked for segregationists George Wallace and then-candidate for Alabama Attorney General, McDonald Gallion. Elsewhere, he’s claimed that the Confederate flag is part of his southern heritage.
But, of course, guilt-by-association’s an easy game to play. No one knows this better than the SPLC. For years, the group’s tried to smear FAIR by publishing random quotes from an early founder, Dr. John Tanton; quotes which are not only presented out of context but date back as early as the mid-1970s—ancient history for many Americans and prior to FAIR’s founding. These attempts to tar the good name of a legitimate organization with a long public record that shows no sign of favoritism or discrimination are as infantile as they are shameful.
Whatever the SPLC’s intentions, one thing’s certain: Those in the media that still use them as a legitimate “hate-watch source” have to stop doing so. What the SPLC wants is to insert into American public life a kind of extreme moral surveillance; one which creates an atmosphere of soft oppression that says “become passive and be unmolested.” This is absolutely not something America values as a nation and my organization will never bow down to such bullying tactics.
Who really deserves smearing are fear-mongers like the SPLC; not immigration reform-advocates like ourselves. We embrace debate, not hate. The SPLC should do the same.
Dale Wilcox is the Executive Director & General Counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute (irli.org), a public interest law firm that advocates for immigration policies that serve the national interest.