Federation For American Immigration Reform | FAIR

An Inquiry into the Methods and Tactics Employed by the Southern Poverty Law Center: Parallels and Dangers

A Speech Presented by Dan Stein President, Federation for American Immigration Reform

Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama
February 19, 2008

First, I'd like to tell you about the Federation for American Immigration Reform or FAIR - an extraordinary institution in the annals of 21st Century American politics. FAIR is the nation's oldest and largest national public interest organization working to reform U.S. immigration laws. Bound by a common purpose and broad sense of mission, we seek to advance forward-thinking immigration policies that serve the wide array of U.S. domestic priorities - including sound environmental, community and social goals that, in our view, are fundamentally inconsistent with today mass and poorly-regulated immigration system.

FAIR seeks to end illegal immigration through improved enforcement strategies, and we seek to reduce overall immigration levels to those more consistent with 400 years of history - to reduce levels from well over one million a year today to around 300,000 a year over a sustained period of time.

FAIR has a wide base of support - nearly 50 private foundations and nearly 200,000 supporters provide the financial base. Unaligned with any major party or financial interest, FAIR is noteworthy on two counts:

  1. We are bipartisan. Our Board of Directors, Advisors and members include Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We also have a broad constituency that includes members of all ethnic and racial communities in the United States. We have members, activists and affiliated organizations that include strong representation from the African American and Latino communities.
  2. We have always sought to ensure that immigration policies must never discriminate for or against persons on the basis of race, religion, gender or other invidious basis.

Over the years, FAIR has played a major role in virtually all major immigration policy changes. As champion of an enlarged and long-range national interest, FAIR seeks to advance America's understanding of the role of immigration to the U.S. in the 21st Century. We fought for policy improvements in the landmark 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, in asylum laws in the Refugee Act of 1980 as well as in legal reforms in 1990 and 1996. From 1993 onward, FAIR was intimately involved in examining, exposing and closing loopholes that might be exploited by international terrorists. After the 9/11 terror attacks, FAIR was instrumental in fashioning important law and policy changes that have helped advance U.S. national security in major ways.

Perhaps most importantly, FAIR has always sought to fashion a workable immigration system that considers the downstream impacts of today's policies on tomorrow's generations. Looking ahead fifty years, FAIR has been one of the few voices in the nation to ask: What will it mean to move from a crowded society of 300 million today to nearly one billion by the end of this century? FAIR - unattached by party loyalties and special interest affiliations - simply seeks to help Americans consider the full dimensions of how immigration policies affect, and will affect, the nation's welfare over time.

Long considered the most credible voice on U.S. immigration policy in America today, FAIR has been asked by Congress to testify on a wide range of issues - well over 100 times - and is a routine voice on national television. FAIR and its law firm affiliate the Immigration Reform Law Institute routinely submit both popular and scholarly articles for publication and our research division puts out some of the best fact-based immigration analysis in the country.

So imagine my surprise when FAIR began to be aggressively criticized by the "Intelligence Project" of the Southern Poverty Law Center - beginning in 2001 and culminating in 2007 with the ludicrous declaration that FAIR is a "hate group." The designation was not made on the basis of FAIR's years of public statements, institutional conduct or specific policy positions. It was based on mere innuendo and was timed to coincide with a coordinated series of political attacks on everyone - members of the media, other organizations, politicians and a wide range of private citizens - who are working for better immigration enforcement.

FAIR responded of course (http://www.ilw.com/articles/2008,0211-stein.shtm). But the question is why? The SPLC has never been a policy player in this arena - indeed it has never articulated any real vision for U.S. immigration policy. It has never taken issue with any policy position FAIR has ever taken.

I'd like to explore why this has come about, and offer some warnings to those who may think an organization like the SPLC is above any sort of public and/or official scrutiny.

The Specious Mask of Tolerance and the Arrogance of Power

I realize I am not the first person to question the tactics and operating strategy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, founded right here in Montgomery. I know I will not be the last. There have been a considerable number of exposes about the SPLC's fundraising and management practices, including an important investigation conducted by the Montgomery Advertiser in the mid-1990's. From February 12 through 14, 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser published the results of an extensive investigation by Dan Morse. He concluded that the Southern Poverty Law Center practiced "financial mismanagement, poor management practices and misleading fundraising practices." The newspaper found that the organization accumulated far too much money, spent too little on actual program work and was a narrowly-controlled fiefdom that failed to subject itself to any outside scrutiny. It was, in a word, controlled by one or two people who paid themselves handsome salaries while doing little to fight poverty in the south.

Morse has since appeared on panels complaining that in the course of doing the investigation, the SPLC was defensive and secretive, threatening him and the paper with one libel suit after another. The SPLC later responded defensively to the expose, claiming they were being smeared - if you can believe that.

Not only were the findings of the Montgomery Advertiser confirmed by subsequent articles as well as various charity watchdog services, all of whom consistently gave the SPLC low ratings in its fiduciary performance, there were subsequent complaints filed about a "plantation mentality" in its hiring and promotion procedures involving its African American employees. This plantation mentality is consistent with the manner in which the SPLC has recently treated African American immigration reformers; the SPLC has put them down with a condescension that his impossible to ignore.

Emergence of the "hate group" industry

It all culminated in an article in Harpers Magazine in 2000 entitled "The Church of Morris Dees" in which Washington Editor Ken Silverstein found that the SPLC was a massive rip-off organization that made staggering amounts of money tilting at windmills while inflating the size and impact of the modern day Klan. He proclaimed the SPLC a "do-nothing" organization and suggested people donate elsewhere.

Today, Silverstein says, nothing has changed:

Southern Poverty: richer than Tonga

Back in 2000, I wrote a story in Harper's about the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Alabama, whose stated mission is to combat disgusting yet mostly impotent groups like the Nazis and the KKK. What it does best, though, is to raise obscene amounts of money by hyping fears about the power of those groups; hence the SPLC has become the nation's richest "civil rights" organization. The Center earns more from its vast investment portfolio than it spends on its core mission, which has led Millard Farmer, a death-penalty lawyer in Georgia, to once describe Morris Dees, the SPLC's head, as "the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement" (adding, "I don't mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye").

When in 1978 the Center's treasury held less than $10 million, Dees said the group would stop fund-raising and live off interest when it hit $55 million. As he zeroed in on that target a decade later, Dees upped the ante to $100 million, which the group's newsletter promised would allow it "to cease the costly and often unreliable task of fund raising." At the time of my story seven years ago, the SPLC's treasury bulged with $120 million, and the organization was spending twice as much on fund-raising as it did on legal services for victims of civil-rights abuses-yet its money-gathering machinery was still running without cease.

It's still going. Last week, a reader sent me the SPLC's 2005 financial filing with the IRS, which is required by law for charities. In five years, the SPLC's treasury had grown by a further $48 million, bringing its total assets to $168 million. That's more than the annual GDP of the Marshall Islands, and has the SPLC rapidly closing in on Tonga's GDP.

Revenues listed for the 2005 filing came to about $44 million, which dwarfed total spending ($29 million). Of that latter amount, nearly $5 million was spent to raise even more money, and over $8 million was spent on salaries, benefits, and other compensation. The next time you get a fund-raising pitch from the SPLC, give generously-but give to a group that will make better use of your money. Like Global Witness. -- http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/03/sb-this-week-in-1172847076, March 2007.

The SPLC continues to mass hundreds of millions of dollars for a rainy day. But this criticism began to sting. The "Intelligence Report" is now seen as nothing more than a cultivation mailing used to inflame fear among its gullible donors that intolerance and hatred is breaking out all over the country. Despite the media's willingness to dutifully report periodic reports claiming a "skyrocketing increase in hate crimes," few reporters look to the Intelligence Report as a real source of "intelligence." No one was really impressed with its work beyond its role as a group celebrating civil rights leaders from the 1960s. The Civil Rights community has apparently told the SPLC that it needs to go to work on real and relevant problems affecting the national community today.

Targeting America's Immigration Reformers

So the SPLC concluded that it needed to find fresh, new enemies. Within a few months of the first Harper's piece in 2000, the Intelligence Project decided to zero in on the nation's immigration reformers.

Based on my personal experience, I feel a need to speak out about what I perceived to be the looming dangers regarding that organization's practices and procedures, dangers that go beyond its fundraising mania and questionable internal practices. They go to the heart of free speech, the rights of citizens, a mutuality of respect and true tolerance in the exchange of different ideas. I realize any criticism of the SPLC at this point will be treated as evidence of a desire for mere retaliation. But remaining silent is not an option. Remaining silent in the face of such bald-faced intimidation tactics is what permitted Senator Joseph McCarthy to obtain such unchecked power in the 1950s and it must be checked now.

Over the years, the SPLC has exploited its substantial reservoir of public and media goodwill: A goal and mission associated with "teaching tolerance" and celebrating the Civil Rights Movement sounds above reproach - and in the hands of truly public-spirited citizens it is. Who can argue with the core values that celebrate the architects and chief actors advancing the great gains from the Civil Rights era? Indeed, some people associated with FAIR had direct involvement in the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago.

But an institution founded for one purpose often finds itself searching for relevance as times change. "Mission creep" sets in. A wise person once observed that "in the lifespan of any institution, its ability to succeed in spite of itself comes to an end."

In the perpetuation of any institution, the need for self preservation and perpetual growth becomes the primary objectives. Fundraising to support professional salaries takes over - fundraising often driven by fear. Insatiable greed can force an organization to make unethical decisions and use bad judgment. The SPLC seems to have fallen prey to this phenomenon.

For years, the SPLC's "Intelligence Report" contented itself with exposing weird residual fragments of the long-irrelevant and virtually defunct Ku Klux Klan. It works "in the mails" and seems to bring in a lot of money. It is edited by a fellow named Mark Potok, whose biography and credentials are strangely unavailable anywhere.

In order to amass and grow this huge war chest -- supposedly to promote tolerance -- the SPLC maintains its "Intelligence Project" as a major component of its fundraising program. This project - which fancies itself a news reporting organization -- apparently consists of a handful of staffers holed up in the big SPLC compound peering at computer screens all day trying desperately to uncover something sensational to tell donors.

The product they produce is the Intelligence Report. It is a shrill and extremist publication usually reporting on the goings-on of various alienated and uneducated misfits in rural areas - generally poorly educated Caucasian males in doublewides in need of immediate psychological assistance -- though the SPLC always claims they are a vast threat to national and community security. The SPLC has also created the new handle "hate group," a designation designed to re-energize its moral authority eroded by the overuse of terms like "racist" and "white Supremacist."

This scenario has worked well for the SPLC. Despite real world changes that have made inter-ethnic gang violence and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism a far greater threat to the stability of American life, the SPLC sticks with this always-reliable cash cow that brought them this far: scattered remnants of the KKK, misfit "neo-Nazi's" and other bizarre and fringe outfits that the SPLC unilaterally concludes are "hate groups."

When the SPLC names a "hate group," no specific information is disclosed. No footnotes are given, no facts are checked and no procedure exists to validate the claims. Let's turn to its crimson red "hate map." What do we see? Not much. In California, we see a group in Sunset Beach, California called "Volksfront" which the SPLC has classified as "Racist Skinhead." No specific information is given about this group: specific location, how many members, website, etc. We're just told there's a hate group somewhere around Sunset Beach. A quick look at the website reveals it is just part of Stormfront's chat room and appears to consist of one or two scattered misfits. Stormfront.org seems to be by far the biggest "White Nationalist" website in the country (around 75,000 unique users a month) and it seems to function solely as a chat room and message board. The SPLC, it seems, has an institutional need to multiply "hate groups" notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. We also read about the Jewish Defense League, the Nation of Islam and the Voz de Atzlan (added when we complained about the fact the SPLC completely ignores anti-Semitism within certain radical Chicano communities), but most of the "hate group" entries nationwide are what we would normally associate with Caucasian-dominated bigot networks. Apparently the pleas for money don't work unless the SPLC engages in ethnic profiling.

Reporters have occasionally complained that their own follow-up has failed to turn up any real organization in their states. But for the most part, SPLC's lose practices and standards for truthfulness have gone unquestioned.

Targeting the nation's Immigration Reformers

Now the SPLC has decided to use the "hate group" label against a large, established and well-regarded organization, FAIR. The SPLC has done so at a time when the public's interest and concern about immigration is growing.

What would drive them to do it? It seems to be a culmination of a strategy launched initially prior to 9/11 and continued more aggressively as the public shock of that event has worn off. They have attacked all manner of immigration activists, Hispanic, African American and Asian, and no matter how poor, vulnerable or injured by out-of-control immigration. They have attacked individuals who have lost family members in traffic accidents at the hands of those who never should have been in the country in the first place.

Most egregiously, the SPLC has attacked people who have lost children who were defending this nation's border. In fact, the SPLC has repeatedly attacked virtually everyone in the nation working for sound immigration policies. But until now, they have restrained themselves from labeling innocent employees, board members and the large the memberships major of credible organizations as belonging to "hate groups."

The primary reason for this radical departure is because they believed it would be sensational - and the sensational is what drives their quest for money. Sure enough, the articles are featured in its fundraising mailings.

In his recent book, Age of Anxiety, McCarthyism to Terrorism, author Haynes Johnson describes the essential characteristics that constituted the practices of what came to be called McCarthyism. The tactics include defining an enemy in stark terms, the use of a noxious label despised by society, the exploitation of fear, the persistent shifting and altering of charges, and a steadfast refusal to answer challenges to the one's own credibility. The SPLC uses them all. Criticism of McCarthy's Red Scare slime was immediately seized upon by McCarthy and his aids as evidence of subversive tendencies or, at a minimum, evidence of being a "fellow traveler." Smugly, the SPLC assumes that to criticize their motives, you can be characterized as giving aid and comfort to a neo-Nazi.

Looking at the most recent reports issued by the SPLC, it appears as though the range of tactics and techniques employed by the Southern Poverty Law Center are now virtually identical to those employed by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who used the threat of being labeled as either a Communist or someone who "protected Communists" to ruin and destroy careers at the height of the Red Scare in the mid-1950s. (See, Nation's Most Prominent Anti-Immigration Group has History of Hate, Extremism http://www.splcenter.org/news/item.jsp?aid=295)

This report on FAIR contains no footnotes, no cited authorities, no evidence of peer review, no articulated standards of evidence and no method by which factual errors can be reviewed and corrected. The SPLC used an altered photograph of a man burning a Mexican flag that had nothing whatsoever to do with FAIR or its activities. The SPLC developed new versions of old misrepresentations and added new ones simultaneously.

For the record, not one material fact stated in the SPLC reports on FAIR - and facts are hard to come by - is correctly represented. Most of the report on FAIR does not deal with FAIR directly, but pertains to opinion-based allegations about an ancient foundation that provided a few grants to FAIR years ago, a board member and people incidental to the organization. Almost none of it deals with FAIR's activities directly and FAIR has responded to each of these assertions in detail. (See, http://www.fairus.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_splcresponse)

Knowing that no one wants to be labeled a "racist," a "white Supremacist" or a neo-Nazi, the SPLC has willfully used fraud, misrepresentation, doctored photos and fabrications to make its case against FAIR. The SPLC has persistently altered its charges and refused to correct mistakes. In the same fashion as Senator McCarthy, it has used the taint of guilt by association and the foggy claim of "you are protecting racists" to justify charging innocent people of the very essence of reputation-destroying conduct.

In labeling FAIR a "hate group," the SPLC has entered into uncharted territory. It was done in the context of a coordinated campaign involving at least eight other groups desperately trying to change the tone and direction of the immigration debate. (http://www.nclr.org/content/viewpoints/detail/50389/)

Apparently heady with its money and power, the SPLC now seems to think it can flip out "hate group" label - entirely a creation of the SPLC - and have it accepted readily by some in the media without any real proof of anything. It is my hope that the SPLC has made a miscalculation. Mainstream reporters I have spoken to have accepted the fact that the SPLC is not a reliable source of factual information. Unfortunately, it's fraud notwithstanding, the "hate group" label remains and the stain - totally undeserved -- could be a distraction.

The SPLC's is quite candid about its intent: its stated purpose in this case is to try to chill speech, to marginalize opposing ideas and to attempt to control the media's programming decisions and thereby determine what ideas people will hear. Mr. Potok said as much in a press conference announcing the report. The danger is that an organization like the SPLC that has built up so much public credit around the label "hate group" will use it to stifle legitimate public policy debate.

What would justify these sort of Red Scare smears? The SPLC has slandered and defamed not just the board and membership of FAIR and not just me. They have smeared blameless and innocent employees who toil on the staff of FAIR working hard to do their jobs. Consider the activists: The SPLC is seeking to smear honest, hard-working U.S. Citizens - many immigrants themselves -- who are working at great inconvenience and cost to themselves to bring about common sense reforms to the nation's immigration policies. And the SPLC has slandered good and decent ethnic minorities who see illegal immigration as undermining both many hard-won civil rights gains and the bargaining leverage of America's minority groups - including many new lawful immigrant families struggling to make ends meet.

Such tactics have not been seen in this country since the mid-1950s, and nothing should justify them now. The SPLC needs to be examined by public authorities, including the IRS, to investigate whether its current operations are consistent with its purported charitable purposes.

The immigration discussion in this country is complex, controversial and deeply emotional. The search for common ground can only be found through constructive discussion based on a mutuality of respect. Organizations that resort to inflammatory rhetoric and name-calling an effort to stifle debate do not advance the public's need for a robust, free and healthy exchange. These tactics are contrary to the best American traditions of public service and inconsistent with our needs as a nation today.

In the end, Senator McCarthy was shamed into silence. Someday soon, I hope to see the same thing happen to those responsible for turning what should be a constructive voice in this society - the SPLC - into a slander machine cynically using fabrications and false hysteria to make a handful of people rich.

Thank you.

This website has NOT been approved by the Southern Poverty Law Center, nor does this website have any affiliation with Southern Poverty Law Center. This website was designed to provide information about the Southern Poverty Law Center from FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The official SPLC website is available at http://www.splcenter.org.