By R. MARK FREY
ST. PAUL (Nov. 18, 2014) — Earlier this month, I attended an event at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis celebrating the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the 25th anniversary of its Civil Rights Memorial that was designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Some members of the Center’s staff, including President Richard Cohen and co-founders Morris Dees and Joseph Levin, were there to review the Center’s work dating back to its founding in 1971 in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. Since its inception, the Southern Poverty Law Center has, in its own words, dedicated itself to “fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society” through litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy. SPLC staffers were quick to point out that bigotry and intolerance are not restricted to the South alone as they shared a map displaying the distribution of some 939 active hate groups throughout the United States in 2013, reflecting an increase of some 60 percent since 2000.
Over the years, SPLC‘s focus has been drawn to such issues as civil rights, white supremacist groups, and the sovereign citizen movement, among others. In recent years, however, the Center has widened its purview to address issues involving immigrants and their civil rights in such areas as access to schools, labor protections, and state actions amounting to harassment and discrimination. To be sure, issues involving immigrants and their civil rights are relevant today. Just a few days after the SPLC event in Minneapolis, the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held its Annual Fall Rally and Cross Lighting in Rockwall, Texas while railing against “illegal immigration” on the steps of the county courthouse.
Immigration continues to be in the news as we await further details about President Obama’s Executive Action on immigration. It’s likely that intense opposition will be voiced in coming weeks by certain elements in the nation, elements afraid of differences exemplified by those coming from different cultures and regions around the world. Fear of the unknown, fear of “the other”, and fear of an America changing in composition fuels this hostility that, in its extreme form, rises to the level of domestic terrorism, marked by arson, bombings, murder, and other forms of violence.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there will be no majority population in this country by 2043. Rather, we’ll be a true pluralistic nation. Our national identity will be framed not by our color, economic status, religion, or point of origin but rather something else. And that something else is what the Founders had in mind when they crafted the U.S. Constitution and our Bill of Rights. Ultimately, as a people, we agree to adhere to and support our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a framework safeguarding our freedoms and guaranteeing us a political system ruled by laws, not one based on the whims of an individual or select group of individuals.
We are at a crossroads at this point in our history. Do we as a nation of immigrants engaged in the great American experiment wish to continue our embrace of immigration as a means for rejuvenating ourselves through peoples arriving from different lands and cultures with new ideas and creative solutions while united in our belief in a political system with guaranteed rights? Or not? President Obama’s Executive Action is really nothing other than a prod to Congress to stop doing nothing and start carrying out the People’s business by passing sorely needed immigration legislation. Hopefully, in the years to come, following comprehensive immigration reform, it will become clear that our leaders finally saw the wisdom of tackling this important issue and preparing for the day when we become a pluralistic nation, a day not to fear but a day to embrace as we move closer to a nation envisioned by our Founders.
Human rights activist and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo understood this with his insightful observation that “Hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.” The great American experiment must continue.
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers.
More information about the Southern Poverty Law Center can be found at its website, www.splcenter.org.