White supremacist activity is on the rise in Arizona, and civil rights activists say tension over the state's new immigration law is further stoking the flames of racism.
The national debate over immigration has served as a recruiting tool for racist groups in general, activists say, but Arizona's problems have made the problem more troubling here.
"They become more emboldened every day," said Bill Straus, Arizona regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "It does seem like the distance between what most of us would consider the extreme fringes of political thought and the mainstream of political thought, it seems like that distance has shrunk."
As examples, Straus and others point to calls for placing land mines along the border with Mexico. Also, demonstrations by the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group that prominently displays swastikas. And, an increase in slurs directed to minority groups.
Hate crimes have remained fairly stable in Arizona, but there are concerns the passions could turn into violence.
Those who track racist activity say it's been increasing for as many as 10 years. They see three factors behind it. The economic downturn triggered anti-immigrant sentiment, which is typical of any recession. Barack Obama's presidential victory further agitated people concerned with the growing numbers and influence of non-whites. And, the fight over immigration issues had become especially nasty even before Arizona passed SB 1070, the law that makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to be in the state.
Civil rights groups say the law will lead to racial profiling and make minorities feel like second-class citizens.
"By far, the majority of people who support 1070 cannot be classified as neo-Nazi or white supremacist," Straus said. "That does not change the fact it is a very, very, very popular law with those groups."
Civil rights groups are especially alarmed at the armed groups who look for illegal immigrants. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he fears violence will erupt in one of the patrols. If a drug cartel came across an armed squad, it could turn into a gun battle that would lead to wider strife, he said.
One of the groups is headed by J.T. Ready, an East Valley resident who has run unsuccessfully for political offices. He's appeared at rallies where swastikas are on display and has been photographed wearing a swastika armband. Ready's group has apprehended immigrants crossing through the desert, but no violence has been reported to date.
"It's a dangerous powder keg, what he is doing," Tillman said. "What type of training does he have? That's not the way you go about trying to solve the problem."
Ready did not return a call for comment.
Ready is tracked closely by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks hate groups. They've prominently displayed a profile of him on their site.
The center believes the escalating tension and hate speech will turn uglier.
"Demonization and violence tend to go hand-in-hand," said Heidi Beirich, director of research. "I'm very concerned about that. I think immigrants are feeling particularly vulnerable in the state."
The racist groups are acting within the law, the civil rights groups say. Still, they're alarmed at how brazenly they're speaking and acting in public.
"We need to really look at what gives that element the belief that they can freely do pretty much anything they want in this state," Tillman said.
Many members of the armed groups are white supremacists, Beirich said. Even outside of those groups, the center has seen more racist activity.
"It certainly is the case that there is a lot of overt neo-Nazi activity in Arizona," Beirich said. "That's not necessarily the case in other states."
The center lists Arizona as having 16 hate groups. Skinheads are especially active here, she said, but their numbers are difficult to track because they don't always have formal groups.
While a federal judge on Wednesday placed a hold on SB 1070's key provisions, civil rights groups say the tensions surrounding immigration will keep triggering elevated levels of racism.
"If they don't get some kind of immigration reform across the board on a federal level, this tension is going to continue," Beirich said.
Bias offenses by location, 2009
Bias offenses in Arizona, by year
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Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety