Ugly side of debate emerges in threats
Kristin Collins, Staff Writer
For North Carolina's Hispanic leaders, the biggest hazards of the job were once long hours. Now, they include death threats.
A pair of the state's most prominent advocates, Andrea Bazán and Tony Asion, say that for the past several months, each time they have spoken publicly, they have gotten a raft of profanity-laced messages, some of them exhorting them to return to their home countries and others denigrating Hispanics. Several legislators say they have also gotten messages recently that cross the line into racism, and one got a menacing voice mail.
Threats of violence are becoming common enough that Bazán, president of the philanthropic Triangle Community Foundation, has requested protection at some public appearances. Asion, director of the Raleigh Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo and a former police officer, said he has received two handwritten death threats at his office since May.
"This is not about immigration," Bazán said. "This is not about debating policy. This has moved on to another sphere. This is hate."
Bazán and others say they've gotten disturbing hate mail before. A 2005 effort to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants brought reams of it, but that furor died down fairly quickly. Now, they say, threats and racist messages are becoming routine.
State legislators who supported a bill this year that would have guaranteed illegal immigrants the right to attend state colleges got a raft of messages, some of which smeared immigrants.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she received one phone message warning that "my days are numbered." She said the message, which included profane insults, felt like a threat.
"I have not seen anything like what illegal immigration elicits," Harrison said. "It's revealing a very ugly side of humanity that I've never seen before."
Beyond the crackdown
Immigration has become an especially controversial subject in North Carolina and across the nation, fueled by the failure of a federal immigration reform bill last year.
Since then, sheriff's departments have started enforcing immigration law, the state's community colleges have barred admission to illegal immigrants, grassroots groups opposing illegal immigration have grown and some politicians have made an immigration crackdown the centerpiece of their campaigns.
Even those who have advocated a crackdown say they don't condone hate mail or threats.
"Certainly, any kind of threatening or antagonistic tone to any debate is unwarranted," said Brian Nick, spokesman for Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who has joined with sheriffs to push for the deportation of illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
But some say anti-illegal immigration activists have given the impression that Hispanics are to blame for all of society's ills, including crime, illness and unemployment.
Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, a New York group founded in 1913 to combat prejudice against Jews, said the ideas and language that have come to define the debate could fuel fringe groups.
"When you describe immigrants as Third World invaders or murderers, or say that they are swarming or coming in hordes, this is dehumanizing language," Lauter said. "That kind of rhetoric inspires others who might act out on hate."
William Gheen, a Raleigh man who has built a grassroots organization to oppose illegal immigration, often accuses Hispanic immigrants of carrying deadly diseases, raping and murdering Americans, plotting to merge the American and Mexican economies, or even reconquer parts of the Southwest for Mexico. He organizes e-mail campaigns against those he doesn't agree with.
Gheen said he does not condone violence or racism and has never made threats, and he dismissed claims that groups such as his could spark threats. "The only violence I'm seeing are the dead, maimed and raped Americans ... that are victims of illegal aliens," Gheen said.
However, other anti-illegal immigration activists say the movement has developed an ugly side.
"Something has gotten distorted, and it's creating a lot of hate," said Jim Gilchrist, the Southern California founder of the Minuteman Project, which organizes citizen patrols of the Mexican border.
Gilchrist said there are extremists on both sides of the issue and that he has received threatening messages from people on the pro-immigrant side of the debate. But lately, he said, he gets more hate mail from people on his side of the issue. He said groups are now fighting among themselves, and some have adopted messages that he considers racist.
Gilchrist said one California Minuteman chapter made a fake video depicting its members shooting a Mexican crossing the border illegally.
Blogs as soapboxes
Bazán said that in the past few months, she has gotten several nasty calls at home and has been the subject of violent talk on blogs, where she was referred to as a target.
The talk frightened her enough that she sent her children to stay with her ex-husband and stayed away from home for several days in June, when it was announced that she was the new board chairwoman of the well-known Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza.
On the day of the announcement, a person commenting on one blog about her new post commanded others to "buy guns" and referred to Hispanic immigrants as "monkeys." "The time is coming to fight back and yes many will die in this fight," the comment read.
Bazán said she has met with Durham police to make them aware of the threats.
When she speaks publicly, a guard often protects her. She had a full-time private guard last week at a La Raza convention in San Diego.
Bazán, along with some other Hispanic advocates, said they have begun reporting messages they consider hateful to the state Human Relations Commission.
G.I. Allison, director of the commission, which was formed to ensure equal opportunity in housing and other areas, said he receives regular complaints of hate messages and threats against Hispanics. The commission recorded 38 hate incidents in the first half of this year, but it doesn't track how many are against Hispanics.
Asion said he frequently receives messages that he considers racist, but the recent death threats were the most troubling.
The author claims to be watching Asion, threatens bombings and dismemberment, invokes the Ku Klux Klan and commands Asion to "go home Mexico."
Asion said he hasn't gone to police because there is little they can do. But he said he now fears for his staff members.
"I tell my folks, if you get a box and it doesn't have a return address, you don't know where it's from, don't open it," Asion said. "These are the times that we're living through."
Source: News Observer