WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The number of U.S. hate groups expanded last year under President Donald Trump, fueled by his immigration stance and the perception that he sympathized with those espousing white supremacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center said on Wednesday
There were 954 hate groups in the country in 2017, marking a 4 percent increase over the previous year when the number rose 2.8 percent, the civil rights watchdog said in its annual census of such groups.
Since 2014, the number has jumped 20 percent, it said.
Among the more than 600 white supremacist groups, neo-Nazi organizations rose to 121 from 99. Anti-Muslim groups increased for a third year in a row, to 114 from 101 in 2016, the report said.
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Last year brought "a substantial emboldening of the radical right, and that is largely due to the actions of President Trump, who's tweeted out hate materials and made light of the threats to our society posed by hate groups," Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told reporters.
Trump, who took office in January 2017, was elected in November of the previous year. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded in 1971, defines hate groups as organizations with beliefs or practices that demonize a class of people. In the past, some groups have criticized the Alabama-based organization's findings, with skeptics saying it has mislabeled legitimate organizations as "hate groups."
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In August, Trump came under under fire for saying "both sides" were to blame for violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia where a counter-protester was killed.
The Republican president was also criticized for a string of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments, including using a vulgar term to describe Haiti and African countries last month.
In a backlash to Trump, the number of black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam increased by 20 percent last year, to 233, the non-profit's report said. It added two male supremacy groups to its census for the first time.
A separate investigation by the group showed that people linked to the alt-right killed 43 people in the last four years, including 17 in 2017. The alt-right movement believes that white identity is under attack by multicultural forces.
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The report identified 689 groups associated with the anti-government "Patriot" movement, with about 40 percent of them armed militias.
SPLC acknowledged that its report likely failed to capture the full extent of hate-group activity. It said many of them, especially from the alt-right, operate mainly online. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)
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