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Immigration group files RICO lawsuit over Southern Poverty Law Center ‘hate’ label

January 16, 2019 GMT

One of the most prominent groups advocating for stricter immigration went to court Wednesday to demand a judge order the Southern Poverty Law Center to stop labeling it a “hate group,” accusing the self-described watchdog of running an illegal racket to silence political opponents.

The Center for Immigration Studies says the SPLC’s accusations of “racist” and “anti-immigrant” are not only wrong, but they have cost the nonprofit support and financial backing by scaring people away from doing business with the center.

CIS brought its challenge in federal district court in Washington, D.C., filing a civil complaint under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act against SPLC President Richard Cohen and Heidi Beirich, who runs the group’s Hatewatch blog.

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Mark Krikorian, CIS’s executive director, says his organization doesn’t meet the SPLC’s own definition of a hate group and the Alabama-based watchdog knows it, but persists anyway which he said was evidence of the racket.

“SPLC and its leaders have every right to oppose our work on immigration, but they do not have the right to label us a hate group and suggest we are racists,” he said. “The Center for Immigration Studies is fighting back against the SPLC smear campaign and its attempt to stifle debate through intimidation and name-calling.”

CIS is not the only group to protest SPLC’s profligate use of the hate tag, but it appears to be the first to mount a challenge under RICO, a law that is usually more associated with the FBI’s anti-mob efforts.

CIS says SPLC defines hate groups as organizations whose official statements or activities “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

Mr. Krikorian said that doesn’t match his group, whose motto is “pro immigrant, low immigration.” He says in practice that motto means CIS makes the case for “fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.”

CIS says it doesn’t think its work amounts to attacks on people but rather an attempt to raise policy questions.

Beyond that, Mr. Krikorian says, the Supreme Court has held that being an immigrant is not an immutable characteristic, so maligning migrants wouldn’t qualify anyway.

CIS’s work is widely cited in the press, including in the pages of The Washington Times; it issues awards for press coverage of immigration, including, in the past, to The Times; its experts are regularly called to testify before Congress; and its experts have been invited to meet with top homeland security officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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The center’s work is also used by self-appointed independent fact-checkers such as PolitiFact.com, which in 2017 fact-checked the SPLC’s hate designation. PolitiFact concluded that most of the evidence was guilt by association.

Under the Trump administration, CIS’s profile has grown, with some former staffers being hired into government jobs. And CIS experts have also conducted interviews with top Homeland Security officials, in events broadcast on C-SPAN.

Those interviews raised the ire of congressional Democrats. Then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley fired off a note last year urging the chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to cancel an appearance, saying CIS spread “abhorrent viewpoints, including white supremacism and anti-Semitism.”

Neither Mr. Cohen nor Ms. Beirich responded to emails seeking comment Wednesday morning. Neither did an SPLC spokeswoman.

SPLC, in its write-up on CIS, says the center made the list in 2016 after circulating a weekly reading list that sometimes linked to “white nationalist and antisemitic writers,” and by commissioning work from a former Heritage Foundation employee who the SPLC said had been ousted “for his embrace of racist pseudoscience.”

Of Mr. Krikorian, SPLC says: “While capable of appearing as a sober-minded policy analyst in some settings, longtime CIS executive director Mark Krikorian’s contributions to the immigration policy debate rarely rise above petulant commentary dashed with extremist statements.”

Among other evidence the SPLC lists in its 8,000-word writeup is CIS’s support for mandatory E-Verify, the federal government’s currently voluntary program to let businesses check their workers’ legal status.

E-Verify was spoken of glowingly just this month by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat but the SPLC cast it in a more nefarious light, saying it was a linchpin of the “anti-immigrant movement.”

Perhaps most damning for the SPLC is CIS’s association with John Tanton, whom the SPLC labels a racist. CIS counters that it’s independent of Mr. Tanton.

The SPLC cut its teeth on taking on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and built a sterling reputation and a massive bank account in doing so.

In recent years, the group has become a major player in questions of Muslims’ rights and on the immigration debate, and it’s expanded its list of haters to include groups that may have taken politically controversial stands but had not generally been accused of racism.

The more expansive role has also earned it new headaches.

The SPLC last year agreed to pay a $3.4 million settlement to a Muslim activist who the group in 2016 had listed among “anti-Muslim extremists.” Mr. Cohen issued a statement in June acknowledging they botched that one.

Part of the problem is the group’s increasing forays into activism, which can build tension with its more longstanding role as a clearinghouse for information.

Guidestar, another clearinghouse for information on nonprofits, last year adopted the SPLC’s hate list, attaching the label to dozens of profiles in its massively influential database. Among those slapped with the label was CIS.

After protests, Guidestar reversed itself and removed the labels from all of the 46 groups it had targeted on SPLC’s say-so.

Guidestar CEO Jacob Harold said they reversed course because there were “reasonable disagreements” over the labels themselves, but also because he feared for his employees’ safety after he said they got threats for relying on the SPLC’s determinations.

AmazonSmile, a program by internet commerce giant Amazon to allow users to donate money to nonprofits, has also sued SPLC’s designation as a reason to terminate CIS’s account, according to the new lawsuit.

CIS says that’s cost it at least $10,000 in donations.

CIS says that since it doesn’t meet SPLC’s own definition of a hate group yet the group continues to use that label online, that amounts to wire fraud, which violates RICO.

CIS says it not only wants a judge to award damages and order SPLC to remove the “hate” label, but to also order SPLC to affirmatively state on its website “that CIS is not a hate group.”

RICO has also been used to settle thorny political clashes before, including by the National Organization for Women which in the 1980s and 1990s filed civil RICO claims against pro-life protesters at abortion clinics.

NOW claimed the protesters’ actions amounted to extortion and asked for the triple damages allowed under RICO. Decades of litigation produced a mixed outcome.

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