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José Uzal says that one day in April, he heard Kaufman say on the air that illegal aliens should be hanged in public squares as invaders. For Uzal, who writes for a Spanish-language newspaper in West Palm Beach, Kaufman had gone too far. So he wrote a column about it. He has also sent her several e-mails and called in to the show.
"She's got a right to say whatever the hell she wants to say, but there's a fine line when she incites hatred," Uzal says. "Everything is funny until one joker out there listens to it and shoots a Mexican guy on the corner. And what is she going to say? 'Oops, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to'?"
Kaufman, Uzal says, is basically shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. "Her radio-station management is going to let this stuff go on until someone gets hurt."
The statement about hanging illegals prompted Aileen Josephs, a West Palm Beach-based immigration attorney, to report Kaufman to the Federal Communications Commission for "indecent" language. The Anti-Defamation League says it has also received complaints about "offensive" remarks on the program.
Kaufman says the "hanging" comment came from a listener and that it was taken out of context. The conversation that day, she says, was about a Mexican man who was smuggling drugs into the country. In August, however, it was Kaufman herself who said on her show: "If you commit a crime while you're here, we should hang you and send your body back to where you came from, and your family should pay for it."
"There's nothing illegal about saying that people should be [hanged] in public squares for crimes," Kaufman says, speaking to New Times. "Now, if I said, 'Okay, you guys need to go out and capture the first Hispanic immigrant that you think might have committed a crime and commit an act of violence on him' — if I did that, I've violated FCC rules. But I wouldn't do that....
"I don't think violence will win this. I don't want to hurt anybody. I just want the laws to be enforced in this country. And my frustration leads me to make outrageous statements all the time."
Those statements are broadcast in a region where immigration, both legal and illegal, is palpable. According to the U.S. Census, two of every five residents in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties were born outside the United States and one in five residents in the tricounty area speaks Spanish. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 950,000 people in Florida are not authorized to be in the country.
Locals who feel excluded or bitter because they don't speak Spanish can vent on the Joyce Kaufman Show. And they do. They complain about getting turned down for jobs because they're monolingual. They complain about Spanish-language advertisements and words creeping onto English-language TV and radio stations. They complain about going to the supermarket and hearing Spanish being spoken all around them. And then there are the Hispanics who call in and proudly state they refuse to teach their children Spanish or that perfecting their English is the surest way to show love and respect for their new country.
Kaufman sees herself as both opinion-maker and entertainer. Her job is to get people charged enough to share their thoughts on the air, which she hopes makes for good talk radio. But it's a bit like vaudeville in that there's someone in the wings with a hook waiting to yank the subpar performers off the stage, and that someone is Kaufman, sitting in a small recording studio in an office building on North Andrews Avenue.
Callers who know the program's preferred vocabulary — individuals who sneak into the country for work are "illegal invaders," not "undocumented immigrants" — have greater success on the air. A caller who identifies herself as "Cuban-American" rather than "an American of Cuban descent" will get screamed at and then dumped.
Kaufman's two grown children say they understand that their mother picks fights on public airwaves for a living, but they don't understand her position in the immigration debate. Derek Kaufman, a 27-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, remembers his mother sending him a YouTube clip about the shoe collection and that it struck him as ridiculous.
"I wanted to get the real scoop, whether she was feeling passionately about this," Derek says. "And she was. She's told me this is a firm conviction of hers.... It seems odd from someone who is bilingual to want to live in a country that doesn't celebrate her ability to speak two languages and that only wants to have everyone conversing in one language. I don't see the purpose behind it other than sort of latent hatred toward others — and that, to me, makes me uncomfortable. She obviously doesn't hate other people; she's always been a very compassionate person. So I don't know how she reconciles that view."
Derek says he tries to keep politics out of the conversation when he speaks with his mother, typically three or more times a week. And he doesn't listen to her show very often. But he worries that her views on immigration and speaking English sound xenophobic. "I think she's certainly put herself with some strange bedfellows and people who are just bigots and want a mouthpiece for their viewpoints," he says. "I don't think she's racist or bigoted in the slightest, but I think that some of her viewpoints align her with people of that ilk."