Skip to main content Accessibility

Spreading Hysteria

Immigration is a complex subject – one that deserves a robust, democratic debate. But there is no room for demagoguery that poisons the discussion with falsehoods and encourages bigotry and racist extremism.

CNN's Lou Dobbs spreads anti-immigrant lies

Immigration is a complex subject – one that deserves a robust, democratic debate. But there is no room for demagoguery that poisons the discussion with falsehoods and encourages bigotry and racist extremism. That's why the Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging CNN anchor Lou Dobbs to report accurately on this volatile issue and why we wrote an open letter to CNN about his reporting.

Unfortunately, Dobbs has used his national platform to spread misinformation about undocumented immigrants while ignoring facts and ideas that do not support his agenda. He has also repeatedly used dubious sources in his show's reporting and given legitimacy to individuals and organizations that make inaccurate and unsupported claims about immigration.

In his daily reporting about immigration over the past several years, Dobbs has portrayed undocumented immigrants as violent, disease-carrying criminals invading the United States as part of a secret Mexican plot to "reconquer" the American Southwest.

We believe it is dangerous for powerful journalists to demonize entire groups of people – regardless of their legal status in our country. More than three-fourths of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or other Latin American countries – a fact that Dobbs understands. His relentless criticism of them has the practical effect of denigrating all Latinos, the largest minority group in our country.

Because of this, Dobbs is the favorite pundit of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group that has described blacks as a "retrograde species of humanity." In a CCC website poll, Dobbs was favored by a three-to-one margin over Sean Hannity and a six-to-one margin over Bill O'Reilly, who has more than twice Dobbs' audience. He's also routinely lionized on, a white supremacist web forum with more than 100,000 members.

After Center president Richard Cohen and Intelligence Project director Mark Potok appeared on Dobbs' show on May 16 to refute his reporting on leprosy, the SPLC received an unusual volume of hate e-mails, including this one: "Thanks for promoting the interests of trash mud people from around the world at the expense of white people."

We're not suggesting Dobbs is a racist or that he intentionally foments hate and violence toward immigrants. But we believe his reporting and editorial comments, along with the anti-immigrant vitriol coming from the mouths of other pundits and politicians, do just that.

This is not mere conjecture. It is well-documented that hate is on the rise in America – and the hysteria over illegal immigration is a major contributing factor.

Our tracking of extremist activity shows the number of known hate groups operating in the United States has risen by 40 percent since 2000, to 844. Just in the past two years, 144 new nativist extremist groups have been formed to harass and intimidate immigrants.

And hate crimes targeting Latinos are increasing.

In Alabama recently, federal agents arrested five members of a self-styled militia for illegally stockpiling weapons, ammunition and homemade grenades. Their leader spoke of preparing for "a war between the Mexicans and whites." In Kentucky last year, two Klansmen savagely beat a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent because of his Latino appearance. In Texas, two skinheads brutally sodomized a Latino teen with a patio umbrella pole, while yelling racial epithets.

These are not isolated crimes. They are occurring across America. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Latinos rose 23 percent between 2003 and 2005.

This country has seen repeated waves of virulent, anti-immigrant hysteria over the course of its history. This vilification has been directed at Catholics, Jews, southern Europeans, Asians and other groups. Each time, media and political figures have played key roles in whipping up anti-immigrant fervor. During Jim Crow days, the same types of things being said now about immigrants were used to smear blacks.

We do not support unauthorized immigration or open borders.

But because fighting intolerance and hate is at the core of our work, we believe it is important to confront Dobbs and others who inflame racial and ethnic passions, whether they intend to or not. We will continue to do so, even if it makes us unpopular. We have taken on unpopular causes in the past because of our convictions – and we'll do so in the future.

Virtually everyone agrees the U.S. immigration system is broken. There are no simple answers. But we must not allow this debate to degenerate into fear-mongering that plays into the hands of those who seek to divide us along racial and ethnic lines.