The number of hate groups in the United States has grown dramatically since 2000, along with the number of hate crimes directed at Latinos, according to a study released yesterday by the watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Pennsylvania, the number of hate groups last year ballooned to 33, up about 20 percent from the 27 recorded in 2006. In New Jersey, the number remained steady at 34, said Mark Potok, a law center spokesman.

The report, called "The Year in Hate," says the number of hate groups nationwide mushroomed to 888 in 2007. The Alabama law center counted 844 in 2006 and 602 in 2000.

The rise of the groups mirrors the number of crimes directed at Latinos, Potok said.

According to the latest FBI statistics, 819 people were targets of anti-Latino crime in 2006, compared with 595 in 2003.

"The immigration debate has turned the climate of this country into something very nasty," Potok said. "A lot of this is due to the vile propaganda coming out of these hate groups."

Potok said it was not remarkable for hate groups to produce hate propaganda.

"If it were merely the groups in a corner by themselves it wouldn't be worrying," Potok said. "But now the propaganda is being circulated by the mainstream media."

Potok said conspiracy theories advanced by the groups had gained national attention.

The more outlandish tales include Mexicans bringing leprosy into the United States; a secret Mexican plot to reconquer seven states in the American Southwest; and illegal immigrants killing 12 American citizens every day.

Potok acknowledged many of the groups were small. Though it is difficult to gauge membership, Potok said, they range can from three or four members up to 15,000.

In Eastern Pennsylvania, the law center lists the following as groups that encourage hate: Keystone State Skinheads with chapters in Altoona, Bethlehem, Harrisburg and Philadelphia; the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement with chapters in Bethlehem and Philadelphia; Catholic Counterpoint, a radical traditionalist Catholic group in Broomall; black separatist groups the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia; and the American National Socialist Works' Party, the Ku Klux Klan and racist group Volksfront.

In South Jersey, the law center lists the racist skinhead group AC Skins in Atlantic City; the neo-Nazi groups National Vanguard and Creativity Movement in Jackson; hate music mail-order firm Micetrap Distribution of Maple Shade; the United Northern and Southern Knights of the KKK in Merchantville; the racist skinhead group the Northern Hammerskins in Toms River; and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement in Vineland.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.