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Immigration hardliners whose fortunes are rising under the Trump administration have released a confidential, year-old letter from the Department of Justice's immigration courts that blasted left-leaning lawyers for targeting them with "derogatory name-calling" based on a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At issue was the SPLC's repeated claim that The Federation for American Immigration Reform is a "hate group" and its escalating efforts to prove that the organization, which favors stricter controls over legal and illegal immigration, is racist.

The immigration court's letter — sent during the Obama administration — does not resolve that dispute. But the decision to release it illuminates the fight for credibility in the national immigration debate, with both sides emboldened after the election of President Trump.

Advocates for immigrants, who have won key victories to block Trump's immigration crackdown in court, would like the government not to consider the views of Fair and its allies, whose leaders have made statements that critics say evoke racism.

But Fair and other critics of illegal immigration say they do not discriminate and are fueled by concern for jobs and resources for Americans. President Trump has embraced many of their views and is appointing top officials who they count as allies, including Fair's former director, Julie Kirchner, recently named ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"What they want is to delegitimize all skepticism of the open-borders, globalist immigration model, as if such a position can never be legitimate for America," Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of the Immigration Law Reform Institute, Fair's legal arm, said about immigrant advocates in an email.

"They label as morally deficient concerned citizens who happen to worry that there's a connection between things like immigration and urban sprawl or increased labor supply and lower wages."

Wilcox released a March 28, 2016, letter from the immigration court's disciplinary counsel, Jennifer J. Barnes, that resolved a dispute over whether Fair should be allowed to file friend-of-the-court briefs on issues before the Board of Immigration Appeals.

The board had asked Fair and the American Immigration Lawyers Association to weigh in on immigration cases for years, including in 2014 and 2015.

Lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center and for groups representing immigrants involved in the cases objected to the request for input from Fair, arguing that the organization is a "hate group," "white supremacist," "eugenicist," "anti immigrant," "anti-Semitic," and "anti-Catholic," the court's letter said.

Fair called those descriptions "McCarthyite ad hominem attacks," and asked the board to sanction the lawyers.

In response, Barnes issued a four-page rebuke of the SPLC's lawyer and three others from immigrant-advocacy groups. She said their efforts were "frivolous behavior" that "overstepped the bounds of zealous advocacy."

"None of this language was related or relevant to the underlying factual or legal matters or FAIR's amicus briefs, and its sole purpose was to denigrate Fair and its staff," Barnes wrote. "Such language is not appropriate in a filing before the Board."

Barnes asked the lawyers to keep the letter confidential, and did not open a formal disciplinary proceeding. The lawyers said they took the letter as an informal reprimand.

Wilcox said his organization — which wants to slash legal immigration from about 1 million a year to 300,000 a year, an idea also floated by Trump and conservative members of Congress — did not initially consider releasing the letter. Then the Southern Poverty Law Center added Fair's legal arm to its formal list of "hate groups" this year.

In response, Fair filed a complaint with the IRS against the law center, accusing it of violating their tax-exempt status by engaging in political activity, which the center denied.

Richard Cohen, president of the law center, said his organization researched the published papers and remarks of Fair founder John Tanton and other Fair officials and published them on its website. Among the many examples are a 1993 Tanton letter that said he favored a "European-American majority" in the U.S. He also oversaw a journal that critics said published racist texts.

Cohen said the center typically labels as hate groups those that "vilify entire groups of people" based on characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

"The question is whether they are a biased advocate. Are their positions infected with racism?" said Cohen. "We would say yes."

The four lawyers targeted by Fair's complaints to the appeals board said Barnes never notified them about the criticism or gave them a chance to respond.

Fair also filed state bar complaints against the four lawyers. Cohen and the other lawyers said the bar complaints were dismissed.

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