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Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Opening Remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Leadership Luncheon


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Representative [Linda] Sanchez, for that kind introduction – and for your service as Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).  I want to thank every member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for organizing this conference and for your work to develop the next generation of Latino leaders.  Through programs that serve more than 1,600 young Latinos every year – and tens of thousands more online – CHCI is giving young people around the country the opportunity to go to college, to advance in the workforce, to learn and to lead.  With internship sessions on Capitol Hill, fellowships that help to deepen policy knowledge and college scholarships that offer high school students the resources they need to make higher education attainable, you are creating new generations of thinkers and doers.  And through forums like this one that bring together so many extraordinary leaders, you are demonstrating the strength and diversity of the Latino community as a whole. 

I would particularly like to welcome the members of the freshman class of the 114th Congress.  Welcome to Washington.  I’m new in town, too.  And I would like to thank all of you here today – public officials and business leaders; philanthropists and union representatives – not only for your service to your districts, your communities and your country, but also – and most importantly – for the example you provide to young people around the nation who see in your remarkable stories what is possible in America.  

Those examples are vitally important – because, as you know, for young Latinos in America, the road to success doesn’t always look so easy.  They see a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color; discriminatory housing or lending policies that make it more difficult to own a home and provide for their families; onerous voting regulations that restrict their access to the ballot box; and the kind of pernicious, casual bigotry that is still, sadly, far too common – bigotry through action as well as bigotry through neglect. 

I remember a case my office successfully investigated and brought to settlement when I was a U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, when we found that New York’s Suffolk County Police Department actively discouraged Latino victims from filing complaints and cooperating with police and failed to investigate hate-crime incidents involving Latinos.  Marcelo Lucero was killed in Suffolk County not by police, but by bigoted residents of his community who felt they could unleash a barrage of hatred and violence upon him with impunity.  Sadly, those views were not far from the reality for the Latino residents of Suffolk County, who routinely suffered from both a lack of protection from the police and bigoted attacks from the community.  After years of being marginalized, Latino residents mobilized through advocacy groups to raise their concerns and spur our investigation.  The settlement required sweeping changes in both outreach and investigation into matters involving the Latino community, from the availability of interpreters to the proper classification of hate crimes.

Incidents and practices like the ones that prompted our investigation can have a devastating effect – not only on the communities in which they occur, but on all of us across the country who view examples of race-based indifference and injustice as part of a much larger narrative.  By what and how, we prosecute, we as a society indicate both what and whom we value and protect.  For a child finding his or her way and looking for encouragement and support, the obstacles to advancement can seem insurmountable.  Opposition to their success can seem widespread – and inescapable.  Too often, the lesson they learn is, “It’s too hard to get ahead.  It’s too hard to change things.  It’s too hard to lead.” 

CHCI believes something different.  You believe that with a positive, collaborative approach, we can support our young people; we can lift up our communities; and we can change our country for the better.  I want you to know that the Obama Administration – and the Department of Justice in particular – is working to do just that.  We are committed to doing our part to tear down impediments to opportunity; to end discrimination and exploitation; and to guarantee that the law’s privileges and protections extend to all Americans – no matter who they are, where they come from, or where they live.  We are striving every day to seek out injustice, to offer effective assistance and to foster engagement, empowerment and unity.  And we are working to ensure that everyone in this country has the opportunities and support they need to thrive.  

After all, it is one of our nation’s fundamental promises – and one of the Justice Department’s guiding principles – that no one should have to endure discrimination and unfair treatment based on the qualities that make them who they are.  That’s why, over the last three years alone, our Civil Rights Division has filed more than 100 lawsuits to combat discrimination in housing and lending.  We are supporting the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which will help break up patterns of residential segregation.  We’re working aggressively to combat bias-motivated violence – in part under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009.  We’re working with state court systems to reduce language barriers, so that people who speak limited English can effectively access court services.  And we are protecting the ability of English learner students to participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.

We are also aggressively enforcing the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) – a law that went into effect almost exactly 50 years ago – which prohibits employment discrimination based on citizenship status and national origin.  In May of this year, we reached the largest settlement we have ever secured under the INA’s anti-discrimination provision when we obtained $320,000 in civil penalties from a company that discriminated against work-authorized immigrants.  That settlement contributed to the more than $1.5 million in back pay and civil penalties we secured under the provision in fiscal year 2015 – more than in any other fiscal year since the statute was enacted.  In fact, in the seven years of the Obama Administration, we have secured more in civil penalties and back pay for victims under the INA’s anti-discrimination provision than in all of the other years of the law’s history combined.

Of course, in addition to fighting overt discrimination, we are also working to ensure that the institutions that make up this country are both fair and effective.   We’re working to end the school-to-prison pipeline and speaking out against zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact young people of color and brand them as criminals before they have a chance to become scholars – because we believe that every young person from every background deserves an education that prepares them to contribute and succeed.  We’re fighting for voting rights by challenging discriminatory redistricting plans, contesting unfair restrictions on early voting and working to reverse rollbacks of same-day registration – because we believe that our democracy is stronger when every American can exercise their right to participate.  And we are working to promote community policing across the nation, because we believe that every individual – law enforcement and resident alike – should feel safe and supported in their neighborhood.

This effort is one of my top priorities as Attorney General.  Through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which my predecessor, Attorney General Holder, launched last year, we are pursuing a wide-ranging new approach to training, policy and research that will help to ensure that interactions between officers and communities of color are positive and productive – characterized by mutual support and not suspicion.  Our Civil Rights Division, led by Vanita Gupta, is continuing its transformative work to promote constitutional policing in jurisdictions throughout the country – including efforts to eliminate discrimination on the basis of national origin and ethnicity and to ensure that police services are not compromised by stereotypes or language barriers.  Our Office of Justice Programs, under the direction of Assistant Attorney General [Karol] Mason, is supporting law enforcement agencies at the state and local level with resources like grants, training and technical assistance.  And through our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – under the leadership of Ron Davis – we are helping to hire and train officers; to promote officer safety and wellness; and to assist state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as they implement the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Of course, in order to move forward successfully, we need to make sure that we have a full and accurate picture of what is happening on the ground.  That’s why we at the Department of Justice are working through components and agencies like our Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI to examine standards for data collection about police-resident interactions – particularly violent encounters.  It’s why we’ve partnered with leading police organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and Major County Sheriffs Association to discuss how to go about collecting data under consistent criteria.  And it’s why we’re going further by developing standards for publishing information about deaths in custody.  These efforts will promote transparency, enhance accountability and give us the tools we need to make targeted and effective improvements.

I also recognize that some of the most innovative programs and promising ideas will emerge from communities themselves.  That is why I convened a series of community policing roundtables in cities across the country.  I wanted to see the extraordinary work that is already underway and to highlight some of the exciting ways that citizens and law enforcement are working together to shore up foundations of trust, respect and mutual understanding.  In each of the communities I visited – Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; East Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California – I saw community residents and law enforcement working together to make real progress.  I saw a willingness to communicate and to collaborate on complex challenges.  And I saw officers and young people – often black and Latino kids from tense neighborhoods – break through long-held assumptions and historic barriers that had allowed mistrust to develop over many years.

For many of us in this room, the importance of that effort – and of all these efforts – is clear.  We know what it’s like to be looked at with suspicion or skepticism by people who don’t know our story or our struggle.  We know what it’s like to face insinuations and accusations because of what we look like, where our parents came from, or what our name is.  We know what it’s like to be told not just that we are different – but that we are less-than.  And that matters.  As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a powerful opinion born of her own experience, it matters because “the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments … reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: I do not belong here.”  I remember arriving for an interview at a law firm when I was coming out of law school.  I introduced myself to the receptionist at the front desk.  She looked me up and down.  And after a long pause, she said, “You can’t be Loretta Lynch.  Loretta Lynch goes to Harvard.” 

We have made a great deal of progress in this country.  The fact that there are so many extraordinarily accomplished individuals in this room today; the fact that you are not only leaders of the Latino community, but leaders of this country; and the fact that I have the privilege of serving as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States under the first African-American president to lead this nation shows just how far we have come.  But it is clear that we still have more work to do to ensure that our journeys are possible for every child in every community in the United States of America. 

That’s why the work that we are doing at the Department of Justice is so important.  That’s why CHCI’s efforts are so vital.  And that’s why the encouragement and the example provided by every individual here today and all our allies and partners around the country, are so impactful.  With our words and our actions, we are sending a message to every bright and hopeful and hardworking child in America: you not only belong in this country – you can lead it.  And we will never stop working to make sure that you have the opportunities you deserve.

As I look out over this extraordinary gathering today, I am optimistic about all that we will achieve going forward.  I am sure of the rightness of our course.  And I am determined to continue the work that we must do together to create the stronger country, the more empowered communities and the more just society that have always been our common goals.  Thank you, once again, for your commitment to this effort.  Thank you for your partnership in this mission.  And thank you for lighting the way forward for every young person in America.  I wish you a most productive conference.

Updated November 14, 2016