A decade after it released a scathing report on the treatment of Latinos in the District, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights revisited the issue yesterday at a hearing with Latino activists and city officials who said that despite improvements, problems still exist.
"We live in a wonderfully diverse, multicultural urban area and remain fully committed to a system of programs and services that ensures meaningful access to all," said City Administrator John A. Koskinen. "We have made progress, but we understand we have a ways to go."
Koskinen, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, School Superintendent Paul L. Vance and Director of Public Health James A. Buford cited ongoing efforts to hire more Spanish-speaking employees, provide Spanish translations on government and school documents, and improve education, health care and outreach efforts to Latinos.
But when questioned by commission members who pointed out continuing dissatisfaction, Koskinen said, "We all understand there's more to be done and that it will take time."
He also said there is no institutional way to measure how well any efforts are working. "Are the [problems] systemic or anecdotal? Do you survey the community? If they say this is not a hospitable environment, it's much harder to measure. But that's the ultimate measure you want: This is everyone's government," Koskinen said.
The commission's vice chairman, Cruz Reynoso, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, said the federal panel would update its 1993 report based on yesterday's hearing.
"It is sad to say that many of these issues of civil rights -- every child getting an equal education or every citizen being treated the same by police -- require that there be constant attention," he said. ". . . But there's been progress."
The hearing was informal, which was in contrast to hearings in the early 1990s after the Mount Pleasant civil disturbances, which were sparked by the shooting of a Salvadoran immigrant by a D.C. police officer in May 1991.
The commission concluded in its 1993 report that Latinos in the District were routinely abused by police and denied "basic civil rights to an extent that is appalling." The commission said that institutional obstacles denied Latinos equal opportunities in the criminal justice system, employment, education, health care and social services. It also made numerous recommendations to improve services and access.
Success in meeting those recommendations has been limited, said a group of Latino activists in a report issued last year. The authors of that report -- including the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs and national and local advocates -- attended yesterday's hearing.
"Numerous barriers still exist to the full integration of Latinos in the District of Columbia," said Denise Gilman of the Washington Lawyers' Committee. Since last year, various Latino advocates have met regularly with top city officials to address problems. Some changes have helped increase the availability of subsidized housing and health insurance to Latinos, but "it has been more difficult for us to achieve results on the large, cross-cutting issues," Gilman said.
Saul Solorzano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, said Latinos "do not find a friendly environment" when dealing with city agencies. He also said the public schools are failing the District's first generation of Latino students.
"The Latino community wants to be involved in the city," Solorzano said. "They pay taxes and their fair share. We're not advocating something radical like a revolution."