Broward News

Lake Worth and Immigration: A Call for Reasonable Debate

After last week's Community Relations Board meeting in Lake Worth, where a reading group from the Night Heron Grassroots Activism Center presented a PowerPoint lecture on hate groups operating in Lake Worth, I posted a couple of items on the meeting here and here.

I spent a lot of time last week and over the weekend looking at the Southern Poverty Law Center's report on the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR -- click here for the report). I was trying to figure out firstly: if FAIR is indeed a "hate group," as it has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by Lake Worth activists. And second, I wanted to know: whether Lake Worth City Commissioner Scott Maxwell, because he has ties to FAIR via his website and radio program, is therefore a supporter of racist, white supremacist hate groups. It was a charge made last year by a coalition of activists who called a news conference just before the commission elections to denounce Maxwell, who was running for the District 3 1 seat (he won). Immigration was the hot-button issue in that election, and it may well be in the one coming up this November. 

I'd talked to Maxwell briefly on the subject last year. He vehemently denied being racist, of course. And I'd also talked to people who knew him. With the exception of the activists who brought the charge against him, nobody I spoke to believed Maxwell had a racist bone in his body. The question came up again at last Monday's CRB meeting, when the board debated whether to ask Maxwell to directly address those allegations and explain his ties to FAIR.

Lesley Blackner, the Palm Beach lawyer behind the Hometown Democracy movement, which FAIR supports, sent me this link late last week. It's a reasonable rebuttal, published in March of this year, of the Southern Poverty Law Center's charges that FAIR is a "hate group." It comes from the Center for Immigration Studies. 

After reading the 50-plus page reports from either side, I tend to agree with CIS that FAIR is not a hate group. Certainly not in the sense of the other organizations SPLC has investigated over the years -- the KKK or Aryan Nation. FAIR, and some of its officers, does have some sketchy ties to racists and eugenicists, and FAIR founder John Tanton has expressed some questionable opinions and gotten into bed with some strange (if not dangerous) fellows.

But if you look hard enough, you can link many righteous organizations to radical groups -- racist, terrorist, revolutionary, whatever -- on the theory that every movement has its fringes. Furthermore, my deep hunch is that SPLC's highly critical report on Tanton and FAIR is strategic -- and that their attack is serving aims other than the pure pursuit of truth.

As for our local scene, I don't think Lake Worth City Commissioner Scott Maxwell is a racist by any stretch (and he's declined to be interviewed on the question when I've phoned him before). Still, it's perfectly right that any elected official's ties to extremist ideas, people, or groups should be brought to light and examined. Maxwell too has had some strange bedfellows via the guests he has invited onto his radio program.

One of the best arguments I've heard for strictly limiting illegal immigration is that it jeopardizes the legal immigration process. Tens of thousands of people around the world want to emigrate to the U.S. How does that affect those people negotiating legal channels when we turn a blind eye to thousands who slip over our borders illegally? Or when we allow them to stay here -- when others (in Russia, China, Indonesia, Africa) may have reasons just as compelling -- poverty, political asylum, family, ambition -- to want to live here? Why should our borders be porous only to our immediate neighbors?

Lake Worth is one of the most diverse cities in South Florida -- and possibly as a result, the voices lining up on either side of the immigration debate are particularly shrill. We need to examine whether our opinions on immigration are motivated by fear of an unknowable future, fear of a declining economy, fear of people who are somehow not like ourselves. And on the other side, whether our resistance to immigration enforcement springs from an equally deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement or an ideological bent that sees every power struggle in stark shades of black and white. Not every illegal immigrant is a victim (they were plucky enough to get here, after all), and not every cop asking for identification is a totalitarian devil.

I'm hoping that our local debate can focus on facts and issues rather than ideology and that we can tone down the rhetoric and rancor. Both sides on this question have reasonable concerns. Each side needs to acknowledge that. Both legal and illegal immigrants live and work here. On the one hand, racism is real, and all Lake Worth residents deserve to be treated with sympathy and respect. On the other, people who migrate to South Florida illegally need to be held accountable. The question is: What's the most practical and ethical and fair way to enforce that accountability?

The Lake Worth Community Relations Board has invited the PBC Sheriff's Office to a meeting on May 24 to explain, for instance, the Palm Beach County Secure Communities Initiative, a partnership with ICE that aims to "identify and remove" aliens with criminal warrants. That meeting ought to be a good place to begin such a balanced discussion.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd