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ABA panel tackles immigration reform, Latino underrepresentation and access to legal services

ABA panel tackles immigration reform, Latino underrepresentation and access to legal services

By John Glynn

Latino leaders, activists and legal experts advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, improving access to legal services for the Hispanic community and increased Latino representation in government during an American Bar Association panel on Nov. 6.

Panelists participating in the ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities program “The Latino Impact: Immigration, Voting Rights and Diversity of Latinos in the Legal Profession” also addressed the Dream Act, voter suppression and the need for more Latino lawyers.

“Equality, justice and due process are all principles that define our nation and our system of law, and yet for many Latinos, those principles belong in somebody else’s America,” ABA President James R. Silkenat said. “Our job as lawyers, as ABA members and as Americans is to ensure that Latinos are guaranteed the same rights and responsibilities that we all enjoy.”

By 2060, Latinos are projected to make up 31 percent of the nation’s population — growing during that period by a rate more than eight times that of the nation’s non-Hispanic population. However, Latinos are substantially underrepresented in the legal profession, constituting a mere 3.3 percent of all lawyers, 4.5 percent of all judges, magistrates and judicial workers, and 6 percent of all students in ABA-approved law schools.

“This underrepresentation leads to the underprovision of legal services to Latino clients,” said Silkenat, who has made legal education and immigration key priorities of his term as ABA president. He expressed his concern for the growing Hispanic population’s lack of access to justice, describing the problem as one of the most critical issues facing the legal profession.

“If you want to see how the future of America will look like, just come to Texas, look at the challenges and look at the opportunities,” said Texas state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who addressed the issue of Latino underrepresentation in federal and state legislatures as well as the challenges of Latino participation in elections.

“If you are arguing about having access in the halls of Congress, in the halls of the state Capitol, to advocate on behalf of our community, you find that to be sort of a one-stage battle,” Martinez Fischer said. “The second-stage battle is getting folks to participate in elections so that they can put people that look like them and walk in their shoes in those positions of power.”

Texas’ population is 38 percent Hispanic, and over the course of the past decade, the state’s population grew by more than 4 million people — 89 percent of that growth came from minority groups and 65 percent of that growth was Hispanic. In that same period, 1 million children under age 18 were born or brought to Texas, and 95 percent were Hispanic.

“Texas gained four seats in Congress as a result of that magnificent growth. … As a reward for that stellar growth, Texas’ minorities received zero seats in Congress,” Martinez Fischer said. “Simultaneously, to recognize and reward Texas for that robust minority growth, Texas decided to impose a photo ID requirement, the strictest requirement in the nation.”

Peter M. Reyes Jr., immediate past president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, addressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. and its importance to the future of the nation.

“There is universal agreement that our current immigration system is broken. That is not up for debate; that is not in question. The only issue is how do we go about fixing it and when do we fix it?” Reyes said. “The time to fix it is now. … It is good for our economy, it is good for business, it is good for employees, it is good for the 11 million undocumented people that are here in this country.”

Gaby Pacheco, director of the Bridge Project, an immigrant rights activist and a “Dreamer,” spoke about the Dream Act and the struggle of undocumented immigrants to move forward the discussion on immigration policies, access to justice and education.

“I grew up in the U.S. I feel I am American, but unlike my friends and unlike the immigrant generations that are born here, I lack that piece of paper, that citizenship that tells me I’m also an American,” said Pacheco, who came to the U.S. at age 8 and considers herself part of the 1.5 generation.

“The Dream Act is probably right now the most viable legislation or piece of comprehensive immigration reform that most likely, if it were to be put up for a vote, it would pass. … It has a lot of support, not just by Democrats or Republicans, but also a lot of support by community, and that’s due in part to Dreamers, and Dreamers putting a face to the issue. It was no longer this abstract number,” Pacheco said. “The Dream Act has been able to pull forward the momentum that we have today on immigration reform, and it’s really changing the way we talk about immigrants and immigration in this country.”

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, considered the legal issues faced by the Latino community as civil rights matter.

“Issues faced by the Latino community in the legal system are not only issues that ought to be of concern to the Latino community,” Saenz said. “There are issues that are ought to be of concern to everyone interested in ensuring that the rule of law successfully continues to govern this nation.”

Saenz specifically pointed to voter suppression and the recent challenges to voting rights.  

“The Voting Rights Act has been used in the legal system to eliminate or at least to challenge some of those ongoing practices that are designed to restrict the right of the Latino community,” Saenz said. “The issue is not so much about continuing exclusion, it’s about limitation.”    

Panelists praised the work of the ABA for advocating for rational and comprehensive immigration reform and thanked the association for its commitment to issues that are of importance to the Hispanic community. 

“I will not rest until we see a reasonable and fair immigration reform bill pass in this country,” Reyes said. “I can’t stress how important it is to have the ABA, which represents the lawyers across the country, to be leading on this issue.”

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