Against the Wave of Hate

With the demise of comprehensive immigration reform plans in Congress and a perceived spike in anti-Latino sentiment caused by the polarizing nature of the debate, Hispanic leaders nationwide are embarking on new strategies to end what they call a “wave of hate” against the community.

Janet Murguía has been a leader at the forefront of this battle in favor of Latinos as president of the nation’s largest and oldest Hispanic advocacy organization, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).The former deputy assistant to former president Bill Clinton and deputy campaign manager for the Gore/Lieberman presidential campaign is the successor of civil rights leader and NCLR founder Raúl Yzaguirre. She has led the organization since 2005.

NCLR has played an important role lobbying for comprehensive immigration legislation at the federal level and in mobilizing the community through its network of nearly 300 local affiliates. The organization has advocated on behalf of some 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, more than 8 million of them Hispanic, to earn a path to legalization as part of an overhaul of the immigration system.

“We’ve been very involved in trying to seek a solution, something that’s workable and practical and sensible, but also something that is fair and humane when it comes to dealing with the 12 million [undocumented immigrants] who are here,” she says.

Murguía has voiced the concern of millions of Hispanics impacted by the immigration debate and has outlined solutions at congressional hearings, rallies and the media.The daughter of a Mexican American father and Mexican mother, Murguía was raised in Kansas City, Kansas. She holds a B.S. in Journalism, a B.A. in Spanish and a J.D. from the University of Kansas, and is a former executive vice chancellor for university relations at that institution.

She has frequently defended the interests of the community in shows such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, which many Latino advocates claim promotes an anti-immigrant agenda. Engaging the media more, she says, is a key strategy to counter this bias against Hispanics.

“We’re seeing today the impact of this wave of hate, not just on immigrants but on the entire Hispanic community,” Murguía says.

She says the media has helped fuel this wave of hate, not only some mainstream outlets but voices pressing an anti-immigrant agenda through the airwaves and the Internet. Cecilia Muñoz, NCLR’s senior vice president for research, advocacy and legislation, initially used the term during an interview with the Washington Times in July 2007 in which she explained the impact radio talk shows had in helping derail a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress.“I don’t think we should be comfortable with the fact that the United States Senate responded to what was largely a wave of hate,” the newspaper quoted her saying.

Murguia is concerned by the media’s lack of accountability. “You now have everyone being able to say anything about an issue and play very loose with the facts,” she stresses. “We see so much of the media in the landscape dominated by one side, the extremist side on this.We’re trying to counter that. We need to be developing strategies that will allow us to not only engage with the relevant leaders in the Congress, but also to be a player in the media, so that the messaging is reflective of the contributions and the positives of immigrants and the Latino community.”

Asked about her participation in Lou Dobbs’ show, Murguía responds: “You get to the television and all of a sudden shows on CNN aren’t just about news and the facts, they’re advocating a particular position and creating a new genre of media that is definitely more advocacy than fact.”

She emphasizes that the key to communicating the message in favor of the community in a show like Dobbs’ is to keep one’s emotions in check.“It’s important to be thoughtful and reasonable,” she says. “You certainly don’t want to get into a shouting match that doesn’t really contribute to the discourse and undermines our efforts.”

She adds, “But I do like when Lou gets a little bit upset, and he has gotten upset.”

NCLR’s visible involvement in the immigration debate has earned the organization a pointed critique by supporters of hard line immigration policies.

National radio host Michael Savage called the organization a racist group back in May 2007 and stated it was “the Ku Klux Klan” of Latinos.

Murguía is unfazed by the aggressive tone of detractors: “We’ve been very vocal, and we’ve been very engaged… We know that there are going to be several people who are going to try to discredit our work in an effort to undermine our role, which they have seen as very substantive and very effective,” she says. “When you’re very effective, people are going to come after you.”

Murguía adds that detractors of a comprehensive immigration approach “are highlighting the problem but they’re not really engaged to offer solutions, and when someone offers a solution they’re the first to shoot it down.”

But the wave of hate generated against the community by anti-immigrant messages, Murguía counters, is real. Data supports it. She pointed out a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Hispanics between 2004 and 2006, as documented in the latest annual FBI Hate Crimes report.The peak of the most recent immigration debate was also when most crimes were committed against Hispanics, Murguía says. “It is no coincidence that in that same two year period we have seen the highest level of intensity generated against immigrants and Hispanics that we’ve ever experienced.”

Murguía observed that between 2004 and 2006, anti-Hispanic crimes spiked by 25%. The FBI report shows crimes against Latinos reached an all-time high in 2006, with 576 anti-Latino crimes claiming 819 victims. Crimes against Hispanics and the number of Hispanic victims has increased annually since 2003.Murguía said her organization will place more emphasis on exposing individuals or organizations that could have ties to hate groups.

“When people are saying outrageous things there needs to be more of an effort to call these guys out,” she says. “I don’t think that story is being told enough.”

The Pew Hispanic Center noted in a report released in December 2007 that 41% of Hispanics claimed either they or someone close to them was discriminated against, compared to 31% who said so in 2002. Murguía said that besides engaging the media in a more aggressive manner, another key strategy to empower the Latino community is through encouraging civic participation.

“The Latino community needs to step up and recognize its political power,” she says. “They have a responsibility and an obligation to step up now more than ever and to participate in the electoral process.”

NCLR has partnered with several advocacy and media organizations, among them the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Univision and Impremedia, to spearhead campaigns to help legal permanent citizens naturalize and boost the number of Latinos to register to vote for the upcoming elections.There are an estimated 9 million Hispanic registered voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Murguía points out there are some 16 million naturalized residents who are now eligible to vote.

Being an election year, Murguía says the next U.S. president will play a determining role in the prospects of moving forward a comprehensive solution to the nation’s immigration quandary:

“Elected officials need to be held accountable. They need to recognize that Hispanics are a vital growing political voice in this country.”

By Alex Meneses Miyashita