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If it weren’t already crystal clear that the right-wing approach to the immigration debate has had the effect of infusing movement conservatism with the toxic sewage of the racist right — all the way to the highest levels — last night’s GOP presidential debate drove the point home rather vividly.

Rick Perlstein surveyed the damage and acidly observed:

The Republican YouTube debate was an astonishment. Not a single second on the economy, which may well be on the verge of collapse, with the middle class potentially more vulnerable than its been at any point since the 1920s. And yet, as my colleague Bill Scher points out, twenty-three minutes of ranting about the dusky hordes invading our shores. Is a great American political party really going to base its entire presidential appeal on scapegoating the Other?

Question answers itself, I guess.

The problem, however, isn’t limited to the Republican candidates — what the debate last night reflected was how thoroughly the discourse has become infected with this sewage. Those candidates wouldn’t have been careering off the rails on immigration if they didn’t believe that was what their voters wanted to hear.

We can object to this kind of scapegoating on logical grounds, but we should also be really outraged on a moral level as well. It’s important to remember, after all, that this rhetoric manifests itself in the real world as a much more visceral and vicious kind of hate — most especially as hate crimes.

I’ve been documenting for some time the way the revival of right-wing nativism has provided a significant meeting-ground for far-right racists and mainstream conservatives, empowering the former and driving the latter over a political cliff.

This confluence is manifested in organizations like the Minutemen and their various spinoffs — which really are nothing more or less than the latest incarnation of the militia movement of the ’90s — as well as the naked immigrant-bashing of mainstream conservative pundits like Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs before national TV audiences. And dare I mention the Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs, and Michelle Malkins?

And it rises all the way to the upper crust of the movement, from Newt Gingrich to those presidential candidates, whose ranks were already swelled by such immigrant-bashing stalwarts as Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul. It’s all been internalized and normalized for the right.

On the ground, and away from the hustings and TV cameras, all this scapegoating manifests itself — as it always does — in much more than mere harsh words. It becomes simple, vicious hate.

Brentin Mock at the SPLC recently compiled a useful list of some of the most vicious anti-Latino hate crimes, the foremost part of the recent surge in hate crimes reported by the FBI. As Mock observes:

There’s no doubt that the tone of the raging national debate over immigration is growing uglier by the day. Once limited to hard-core white supremacists and a handful of border-state extremists, vicious public denunciations of undocumented brown-skinned immigrants are increasingly common among supposedly mainstream anti-immigration activists, radio hosts and politicians. While their dehumanizing rhetoric typically stops short of openly sanctioning bloodshed, much of it implicitly encourages or even endorses violence by characterizing immigrants from Mexico and Central America as “invaders,” “criminal aliens” and “cockroaches.”

The results are no less tragic for being predictable: Although hate crime statistics are highly unreliable, numbers that are available strongly suggest a marked upswing in racially motivated violence against all Latinos, regardless of immigration status. According to hate crime statistics published annually by the FBI, anti-Latino hate crimes rose by almost 35% between 2003 and 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available. In California, the state with the largest population of Latinos in the country, anti-Latino hate crimes almost doubled in the same period.

Mock then goes on to give us a useful sampling of these hate crimes and their very flesh-and-blood consequences. Be sure to read the whole thing, but here’s a handful:

JAN. 9, 2004
Dateland, Ariz.
Pedro Corzo, a Cuban-born regional manager for Del Monte Fresh Produce, is gunned down by two Missouri residents — 16-year-old Joshua Aston and his 24-year-old cousin Justin Harrison — who traveled with Aston’s younger brother, 15-year-old Nicholas Aston, to a remote section of southern Arizona with the specific intent of randomly killing Mexicans. The brothers shaved their heads before embarking on their odyssey. Corzo was ambushed after he stopped at a roadblock the group constructed from boulders. Joshua Aston, the ringleader, is later tried as an adult and receives two life sentences for the murder. Harrison also is sentenced to life. Charges are eventually dropped against the younger Aston brother.

DEC. 29, 2004
Redlands, Calif.
Two Latino men and a Latina woman are beaten and kicked in the parking lot of a strip club by a “gang of about 10 skinheads,” as later reported by the San Bernardino County Sun. The neo-Nazi skinheads yell racial slurs at their victims, prompting the Redlands police chief to declare that hate crime charges will be pursued if and when the perpetrators are caught.

MAY 7, 2005
Maryville, Tenn.
A Mexican grocery store is vandalized by five white men who shatter windows, damage a refrigerator and spray-paint neo-Nazi symbols, causing over $17,000 in damage. Two men — Thomas Lovett and Jacob Reynolds — eventually plead guilty and are each sentenced to six months in prison.

And one was particularly noteworthy, because it illustrates how far the discourse on national TV at least has descended:

FEB. 17, 2005
Fabens, Texas
Osvaldo Aldrete-Dávila, who is unarmed and fleeing apprehension on foot, is shot at 15 times by two U.S. Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean. One bullet strikes Aldrete-Dávila in the buttocks, severs his urethra and lodges in his groin. Though seriously wounded, he manages to escape into Mexico.

Though the border patrol officers later find that the van driven by Aldrete-Dávila contained a shipment of marijuana, they are unaware of this fact when they open fire. Ramos and Compean attempt to cover up their actions by cleaning up the spent shell casings and failing to report the use of their firearms to their superiors, as required by Border Patrol regulations. The two agents also fail to report the shooting in their incident reports. El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Luis Barker later testifies that Compean told Barker that he and Ramos covered up the shooting because they “knew [they] were going to get in trouble.”

After the shooting comes to light a month later, Ramos and Compean are arrested and eventually convicted by a federal jury of felony assault charges, discharging a firearm in a crime of violence, civil rights violations, and obstruction of justice. They’re sentenced to 11 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

Ramos and Compean will eventually be transformed by a major right-wing misinformation campaign into high-profile martyrs of the anti-immigration movement. The agents, for their part, will remain unrepentant. Ramos tells a Texas Monthly writer in 2007 that Aldrete-Dávila “got what he deserved.”

Indeed, Salon’s Alex Koppelman exploded the Ramos-Compean storyline back in September — but hardly anyone seemed to take note. Even so, as I noted at the time, this kind of afactual, horribly irresponsible reportage, which now surrounds so much of the debate, has made it divisive and toxic instead of healthy and unifying.

Yet as recently as last week, Dobbs was flogging the Ramos-Compean story as somehow legitimate — never having even acknowledged its thorough debunking. Ah, but those mainstream journalists have so much more credibility and accountability, I am told. Evidently, this innate credibility allows them to flog fraudulent stories without consequence.

I am also looking forward to the next round of blogger ethics panels. Maybe Joe Klein and Lou Dobbs will be together on it.