The Southern Poverty Law Center, which waged a 20-year campaign against hate groups by suing them in court for money damages, is turning its legal firepower against violence directed at immigrants.
The law center is suing two members of the Imperial Klans of America who are serving prison terms for beating a 16-year-old U.S. citizen of Panamanian Indian descent at a Kentucky fair in July.
The lawsuit alleges that Jarred Hensley, 24, of Cincinnati and Andrew Watkins, 26, of Louisville mistook Jordan Gruver for an illegal Hispanic immigrant and beat him severely, breaking his jaw and left arm and cracking two ribs.
The lawsuit, filed in February in Meade County Circuit Court in Kentucky, is the first by the law center aimed at combating a rise in violence against immigrants, according to Morris Dees, the center’s founder. “The biggest thing fueling hate groups is Latino migration into this country, (people) who are perceived as harming America,” Dees said.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the center sued Ku Klux Klan groups that targeted African-Americans. It won multimillion-dollar judgments, which forced some of the groups into bankruptcy.
Klan membership in the United States has dropped from about 4 million in the mid-1920s to about 6,000-8,000 today, according to statistics from the center, which tracks white supremacist groups. Klan groups are active in 36 states.
The Imperial Klans of America, the second-largest Klan group in the nation, has 23 chapters, Dees said. The IKA’s website describes the group as a “private Christian organization.” It says the group does not advocate violence but uses racial slurs and adds, “If you are not of the White race, this website is not for the likes of YOU!”
Hensley and Watkins pleaded guilty to assault “under extreme emotional disturbance” and each received a three-year prison term in February, said Commonwealth Attorney Kenton Smith, prosecutor for three Kentucky counties. Smith said the emotional disturbance aspect of the charge refers to the defendants’ emotions, such as anger, at the time of the offense.
“It’s our contention that they picked (Gruver) out because they thought he was Hispanic,” Smith said. “Our theory of the case is that they were down here on a recruiting trip. They had their Klan T-shirts on.”
The two men attacked Gruver at the Meade County Fairgrounds in Brandenburg, beat, kicked and spit on him, and shouted racial epithets at him, Smith said.
Attorneys for Hensely and Watkins could not be reached for comment.
Hensley and Watkins have not responded to the lawsuit, Dees said.
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