Latinos and the Justice System


An arrest along the border with Mexico.

Over 50 million Hispanics live in the United States, according to data released this month by the 2010 federal census—almost double the population a decade ago. But despite their explosive growth, Latinos are still disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

That was underlined at a public hearing held in New York City last week by the American Bar Association's Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, the latest in a series of “listening events” that kicked off in Chicago last November.

One key issue raised at the hearing was the disproportionately punitive impact that federal enforcement of immigration policies had on the Hispanic community. particularly through the deportation of Latin American immigrants for minor criminal convictions.

Some 90 percent of of the 897,000 immigrants deported between 1997 and 2007 many because of prior nonviolent criminal convictions, came from Latin America—but only 78 per cent of all immigrants to the U.S. came from the region, testified Manuel Vargas, founder of the New York based Immigrant Defense Project.

“The (Latino) community has growing concerns with some of the enforcement policies that the federal government is promoting and, substantively, with how harsh the law has become,” said Vargas.

Change, he added, “is long overdue.”

Vargas was one of several compelling witnesses at the ABA hearing, held at the New York University School of Law. The hearings, partly inspired by the 2009 election of Stephen N. Zack as ABA president—making him the first-ever president of Hispanic origins—are aimed at developing a comprehensive understanding of justice issues facing the Latino population.

Other issues raised during the hearing included equal access to courts with adequate interpretation and Spanish-speaking legal help when needed, and the abuse of undocumented immigrants.

Moises Vela, a partner at the global law firm Holland and Knight and another member of the ABA advisory committee, told the ABA commissioners that little is known about what happens to the assets of deported immigrants.

Racial Profiling

Another long-standing concern for the Hispanic community is racial profiling. Several New York witnesses complained that “stop and frisk” policing techniques disproportionately single out Hispanics, adding to the community's general fear and mistrust of police.

Confidence in the U.S. criminal justice system is closer to the low levels expressed by blacks than to the high levels expressed by whites, a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found. Testimony and data presented at the hearing indicate that these feelings remain.

One immigrant, who is also a domestic violence victim, illustrated the point in her own appearance before the panel. Identifying herself by her first name only to protect her safety, “Milena” recounted her harrowing experience with the police as she tried to go through official channels to lodge a complaint. Others who claimed to be victims of police brutality also took the floor to describe their often difficult interactions with law enforcement.

Many of the witnesses pointed out that there was nothing new about their concerns—particularly since research has well documented the problems

“The question is what do we do with this data, how do we hold these agencies accountable?” said Richard Rivera, former New Jersey police officer and expert on police brutality and racial profiling.

At the end of the process, the commission will prepare a report with recommendations on how to better integrate Latinos into the American justice system. The ABA's prestige as the country's foremost legal organization with over 400,000 members, ensures that the recommendations will get a hearing in Congress and the Department of Justice.

Commission members include Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Diana Sen, President of the Hispanic National Bar Association; Jenny Rivera, Professor at CUNY School of Law; Janet Murguia, President & CEO of La Raza; and Dr. Eduardo Padron, President of Miami Dade College.

The advisory committee includes Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and Maribel Medina, General Counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District.

The next hearing will be held in Miami on May 20, 2011. Subsequent sessions are scheduled for Austin, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. .

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor for news & content of The Crime Report

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