Juan Varela was shot in the neck in his front yard in Phoenix, Ariz., last May by his neighbor Gary Kelley. Moments before killing Varela in front of his mother and brother, Kelley yelled, "Go back to Mexico or die!" Varela was not an undocumented immigrant, but a fifth generation American of Mexican descent, said Carlos Galindo, the family's spokesperson in a phone interview.
In May 2009, 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul Flores were murdered by members of a Minuteman vigilante group. The child and her father were both American-born U.S. citizens. Leader Shawna Forde broke into the Flores home in Arivaca, Ariz., with two men she recruited to help her fund her splinter Minuteman organization. After the group shot and killed her father, Brisenia pleaded with the Forde and her accomplices, saying, "Please don't shoot me." One of the masked figures then shot her in the face at point blank range, her mother, the lone survivor, said in her testimony. Forde was convicted of first degree murder in February of 2011 and sentenced to death.
Last November, two Mexican nationals, cousins Alex Cauich and Jose Omar Cauich, were brutally assaulted by a group of white men while standing in front of a bar in San Francisco. Witnesses on the scene heard the assailants yelling "run like you ran across the border" during the incident. Last week, three men with connection to a white supremacist group were convicted in the assault. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who worked as a police officer in Arizona and California for more than twenty years, told The Huffington Post that he perceives this crime and others like it to be part of rising anti-Latino sentiments around the country.
Recent studies conducted by the National Institute of Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the FBI and the Pew Research Center seem to show that these incidents were not isolated hate events, but part of a greater trend.
The preliminary findings of a congressionally-mandated study by the National Institute of Justice suggest that anti-Latino hate crimes rose disproportionally to other hate crimes between 2004 and 2008. The study estimates that in 2003 there were 426 hate crimes against Latinos, while in 2007 there were 595 nationally. According to the same study, California and Texas saw the most anti-Latino hate crimes, as well as more dramatic increases of such incidents than other states. Data collected by the FBI also indicates a steady rise in anti-Latino hate crimes across the country from 2003 to 2007.
A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, contends that the number of "radical right groups" in America -- including hate groups, "Patriot" groups and nativist groups -- increased in 2010 for the second year in a row.
Although recent studies indicate anti-Latino hate crimes have been on the rise over the last decade, many believe their numbers are even greater than those reported. Mark Potok, a spokesperson for the SPLC, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that, "one thing to understand is that Latinos, and in particular undocumented immigrants, are among the least likely to report hate crimes because they fear deportation."
RACE AND POLICY DEBATES
Many, including the family members of victims, associate a rise in anti-Latino hate crime and an increase in anti-Latino sentiments with the on-going, virulent immigration debate around the country.
Varela's family in Phoenix told The Huffington Post that they believe his murder was provoked by the heated controversy surrounding the passage of Arizona's S.B. 1070 law two weeks prior. According to Carlos Galindo, the family's spokesperson, Kelley's attorney admitted in court that his client was going to the Varela home on the day of Juan's murder in order to discuss the the family's attendance at an S.B. 1070 protest. Galindo also said the immigration debate created a dangerous environment for Latinos in his state.
"It's gone from a frustration with the federal government not doing their job, to a frustration with the immigrants and with Latinos in general," said Galindo. "People are encouraging this kind of demonization and this culture of hatred which results in violence," he added.
In 9-year old Brisenia's murder, the Associated Press reported that Shawna Forde was motivated to break into the Flores home because she "considered Raul Flores a drug smuggler and wanted to use his drug proceeds for a paramilitary organization to seal off the border to immigrants." According to CNN reports, no drugs were found in the Flores home.
George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney, said in an interview with The Huffington Post that he associates the brutal assault of the Cauich cousins and a "recent surge of anti-Latino hate crimes" in his city, with economic factors and the immigration debate. Gascón believes that immigration debates in Arizona, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina and now Alabama have been "fueled by race-based sentiments."
"It's going to take a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions on both sides of the debate to shift the dialogue away from race, and back to policy," Gascón said.
Mark Potok, the SPLC spokesman, believes that reporting around the immigration debate has led directly to a more hostile environment for Latinos in America because it "focuses a lot of negative attention around Latinos." He explained, "When leaders and politicians get press and promote stereotypes, it encourages others to hate Latinos as well -- so it helps to spread the poison... There are ways of having a debate about immigration without demonizing one group of people."
But while Potok also blames "nativist" groups like Minuteman organizations for spurring hatred against Latinos and immigrants, Howie Morgan, the national political director of the Minuteman Project said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post that his organization has never framed the debate in racial terms.
"We have never demonized Latinos. In fact, we have been demonized as racists by 'La Raza' -- which means 'The Race' by the way... When we have come across organizations in the Minuteman movement that align themselves with racism, we've thrown them out and repudiated their statements. We continue to make sure this not about race, but about policy. We are a pro-immigrant organization, and calling us racist is simply inaccurate," he told HuffPost. Morgan was referring to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) which considers itself the "largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization" in the country.
But Gascón, thinks the Minutemen are ignoring an "elephant in the room."
"I'm glad the [Minuteman Project's] official stance is that it shouldn't be a race-based conversation," Gascon said in a phone intervew. "But the elephant in the room when you talk about immigration is that a very large number of immigrants come from Latin America. If you start talking about illegal immigration, what comes to mind? Do you think of someone from Eastern Europe or Asia or do you think of a Latino?"
According to a 2009 study, more Americans think that Hispanics are the targets of discrimination in American society than say the same about any other major racial or ethnic group. According to Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization that seeks to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population, the PHC's studies found that, prior to 2009, African Americans were perceived to be the group most discriminated against.
Lopez also said that on average, Latinos are thinking about discrimination and immigration as bigger issues for their community than they did just a few years ago. In 2010, 61 percent of Latinos believed that discrimination against Hispanics is a "major problem," up from 54 percent in 2007. And in 2010, when asked to state the most important factor leading to discrimination, a "plurality of 36 percent cited immigration status as most important, up from a minority of 23 percent who said the same in 2007," reported Lopez.
In an interview with a local paper, Gilberto Esquivel, a member of the Riverside Human Relations Commission, said that the 50 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos in California in 2010 was directly tied to the passage of the S.B. 1070 immigration law in Arizona. In Esquivel's county alone, the FBI documented 21 hate crimes in 2010, up from 12 in 2009.
Esquivel believes "anti-Latino and anti-immigrant remarks became more numerous and hateful on conservative talk radio, in newspaper letters to editors and on the Internet."
"The hate is there," Esquivel said. "[S.B. 1070] gives it legitimacy."