By Eric Holder
US Attorney General
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- We come together today in a moment of great consequence – with critical challenges stretching before us. Six decades after Hernandez v. Texas extended the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection to people of all races and backgrounds – and half a century since the passage of the Civil Rights Act finally codified American equality into American law – there’s no question that our nation has taken a range of extraordinary, once-unimaginable steps forward. Yet recent headlines remind us that these advances have not put the issue of equal justice to rest.
On the contrary: from America’s heartland to our southwest border, the events that have captured attention and sparked debate over the course of this summer illustrate that the fight for equality, opportunity, and justice is not yet over. These issues have not yet been relegated to the pages of history. And although this is a struggle that predates our Republic, it poses challenges as contemporary as any others we currently face.
For over four decades, the HNBA has stood at the forefront of national efforts to confront these challenges – by working to increase diversity on the bench and bar. By helping to educate the leaders of tomorrow. By empowering members of America’s Latino communities. And by fostering new opportunities for legal professionals of Hispanic heritage – and particularly Latinas in the law – so we can grow their ranks and ensure that their voices are heard from the chambers of our courts to the halls of Congress.
For me – and for my colleagues at every level of today’s Department of Justice – this work is also a personal and professional priority. More than ten years ago, during my service as Deputy Attorney General, I worked hard to strengthen the Justice Department’s internal efforts to build a diverse and effective workforce. When I returned to the Department as Attorney General, in 2009, I significantly expanded this work – because it not only improves our ability to draw on the skills and talents of everyone ; it also makes the Justice Department both more credible and more effective. In fact, since I understand this convention includes a job fair, I can’t pass up the chance to urge all of the young and aspiring attorneys in this crowd to consider a career in public service – and coming to work for me.
Beyond the institution itself, my colleagues and I also are striving to bolster the legal profession at large – by opening its doors to women and men from every race, background, ethnicity, and walk of life. According to the Pew Research Center, the Hispanic population in the United States currently exceeds 53 million people. It has increased almost sixfold since around the time the HNBA was founded. It’s doubled since the year 2000. Yet statistics show that, of the approximately 1.2 million attorneys working in the U.S. today, fewer than 50,000 – that’s less than four percent – identify as Hispanic.
Although women and people of color have made up an increasing percentage of both licensed lawyers and law students in recent years, the law continues to lag far behind many other professions. So we need to do everything in our power to ensure that the coming decades witness an uptick in the number of people of color, women, people with disabilities – and new immigrants – who find productive avenues into the legal field and the American workforce as a whole. And once they have fair opportunities to compete for these jobs, we need to close the “pay gap” – and make sure every worker is compensated according to their skills and experience, not simply their gender or gender identity.
As the HNBA has made clear throughout its history, all of us – both collectively and as individuals – have more work to do: to tear down persistent barriers, to combat discrimination, and to uphold the civil rights to which every person is entitled. In our comprehensive work to advance equality, we need to look far beyond law school campuses and workplaces. We need to keep building upon the exemplary record of civil rights enforcement that the Justice Department has established over the last five and a half years. We need to keep striving – through programs such as President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – to address persistent opportunity gaps and ensure that all people can reach their full potential. And we need to summon our collective experience as legal professionals – and our shared commitment as a nation – to tackle the urgent challenges faced by millions of people every day: from America’s immigrant communities to our military bases; from our places of worship to our financial markets; and from our voting booths to our border areas – where, as you know, a critical situation is unfolding as we speak.
Among the most pressing of our domestic challenges is the problem of unaccompanied young people traveling to the United States and entering the country illegally. I know this is an issue with which we are all too familiar, and which has provoked intense discussion throughout the summer – both within, and far beyond, the United States. In fact, earlier this week, I traveled to Mexico City to hold meetings with my counterparts from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. And this was among the major items on our agenda.
As the chief law enforcement officials for each of the nations we serve, my colleagues and I agreed to create a high-level working group, staffed by representatives from each of our offices, to develop an integrated strategy to deal with this situation. This working group will hold its first meeting in the coming weeks. And they will help us formulate a coordinated plan of action.
But another potential solution to this problem is obvious: fixing our broken immigration system. The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has already passed a bill that would go a long way to doing just that. The issue is compelling, the solution is present and the need to reaffirm our commitment to remaining a nation of immigrants is critical. This is who we are as an exceptional nation. If we are to remain true to our heritage, we must fix our immigration system, bring people out of the shadows and establish a path to citizenship. There are a variety of ways in which much of this can be done and in the face of House inaction this Administration will proceed. It will do so lawfully and in a manner that is consistent with our values. We will, as Americans always have, seek to make our Union more perfect.
In the meantime – within America’s borders – the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children appearing in our immigration courts present an urgent challenge: how to conduct immigration proceedings in an efficient manner while any claims for relief are presented as clearly as possible. One way to address that challenge is to facilitate access to legal representation for these children. Though these children may not have a Constitutional right to a lawyer, we have policy reasons and a moral obligation to insure the presence of counsel. And that’s why the Justice Department began planning a legal aid program well before the recent surge of unaccompanied children.
Last July, President Obama announced the creation of a task force to expand national service, calling on federal agencies to meet that goal by creating volunteer opportunities that are aligned with agency priorities. The Justice Department’s response to that call was clear. By partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service to design and implement a new legal aid program, the Department is protecting vulnerable populations while improving our operations and strengthening the delivery of Department services in their communities.
The first phase of this new program – known as “justice AmeriCorps” – was announced in June. It will provide legal aid to children who make the long and often dangerous journey to the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian. And this week, we are taking the next step in this work – by announcing approximately $1.8 million in grant awards to legal aid organizations in more than 15 cities around the country.
These grants will enable recipients to enroll approximately 100 lawyers and paralegals as justice AmeriCorps members, who – after extensive training in December – will begin to represent these children in our immigration courts in early 2015. The justice AmeriCorps members will also help to identify children who have been victims of human trafficking or abuse – and, as appropriate, will refer them to support services and authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting those who perpetrate such crimes.
This initiative reaffirms our allegiance to the values that have always shaped our pursuit of justice. It will bolster the efficacy and efficiency of our immigration courts, empower new generations of aspiring attorneys and paralegals to serve their country, and provide important legal aid to some of the most vulnerable individuals who interact with our immigration system. Most importantly, it will bring our system closer to our highest ideals – because the way we treat those in need, and particularly young people who may be fleeing from abuse, persecution, and violence, goes to the core of who we are as a nation.
Fortunately, thanks to the work that’s underway; the leadership of President Obama and other Administration officials; and the tireless efforts of nonpartisan groups like the Hispanic National Bar Association, it’s clear that we stand together this week – in defiance of gridlock and the narrow politics of the moment – truly “Unidos en Washington.” We stand together in our assertion that civil rights are human rights – and they must be extended to all. We stand together in our demand that equal work should be performed for equal pay – and our daughters deserve the same opportunities as our sons. And we stand together in our conviction that it is both the right – and the responsibility – of every American to forge his or her own future; to build on the progress we’ve seen in recent decades; and to extend the promise of our great country until it includes every single person who dares, and dreams, to call this nation their home.
As we carry this work into the future, I want you to know how proud I am to count you as colleagues and partners. Always remember that positive change is not inevitable. It is a function of hard work and resilience. I am confident that - together - we will make our great nation even more great, more just. I look forward to everything we will achieve together in the months and years ahead. And I thank you, once again, for all that you do.