Last week, dozens of Latino organizations from the District, Virginia and Maryland announced the formation of the Regional Coalition of Latino Organizations, a grass-roots group formed to tackle such issues as gang violence, voting and legislation affecting immigrants. One activist involved in forming the group is Eugenio Arene, executive director of the D.C.-based Council of Latino Agencies. He spoke about it with staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan.

QWhy was the new group formed?

AAs you know, we have experienced a 37 percent population increase of Latinos just in D.C. [according to the 2000 Census], and there has been hyper-growth in the [Hispanic population in the] region from the '80s to this point. . . . We realized there are not borders for our people in the region. They live in Virginia and Maryland, they work in D.C., they commute back and forth every day. They face similar issues . . . of displacement, voting rights and, of course, the other issues, such as health, employment, education, etc. The community in the region, which has grown exponentially, is sharing the same obstacles in terms of access in general, whether to the power structure of the region or to services. So it made sense.

What kinds of actions are you planning?

The first three issues that we are focusing on are voter registration, voting rights for immigrants in D.C. . . . and language access.

How will the new organization work? What will it do?

Lobby the different governments, lobby the nation when necessary, have a position when necessary, have a position of the region. Having a position of the region is crucial in terms of the importance of the capital. Politics and policies are cooked in the White House, not even a half-mile from where the mayor [of Washington] cooks his own policies. It's an instrument of policy, politics, coalition-building and advocacy. What is the purpose of that? The betterment of the Latino community in the region.

Why are you making a priority of legislation to expand voting rights to more immigrants in the District? What are the challenges in getting it passed? [Five D.C. Council members introduced legislation in July to give the vote in local elections to legal permanent residents, but members of Congress have indicated that they would not approve such a measure.]

The immigration system is broken and not working. It has a backlog and is not processing the documentation. So people are waiting [for citizenship]. It's not that we don't want to become citizens. So the alternative to that, for the 10 percent of the people that live in the area [and are noncitizens of voting age], is to have voting rights, so we can also have a council member who is of Hispanic origin. We can't keep ignoring this population in this area. . . . The crucial challenge is Congress. . . . We cannot let Congress decide for our future.

EUGENIO ARENE