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The Record

Summit Aids Latinos Facing Discrimination; Bias Underreported, State Officials Say

By Miguel Perez, Staff Writer

June 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Although Latinos represent 13 percent of the New Jersey population, they filed only 6.1 percent of the discrimination complaints received by the state Division on Civil Rights last year.

But it's not because they suffer less discrimination, state officials say, it's because they don't know the laws that protect them and the agencies where they can seek help. It's because, in the Latino community, many acts of discrimination go unreported.

In an effort to fill that information gap, state Attorney General Peter C. Harvey on Thursday hosted the state's first Hispanic Leadership Summit, featuring state agencies that deal with civil rights issues.

"We have been working hard to ensure that cultural differences and language barriers do not become an obstacle for informing people of their rights, nor an excuse for disparate treatment and harassment of individuals in the workplace, places of public accommodation, and housing," Harvey said.

"By working in partnership with individuals and organizations, we can more effectively spread the word that unlawful discrimination has no place in our society, and we can make more people aware of the rights and recourse available to them if they feel they have been discriminated against."

In the daylong summit at Rutgers University in Piscataway, about 200 participants heard presentations from the Division on Civil Rights and other state agencies, including the state police, the Office of Bias Crimes and Community Relations, and the divisions of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Elections, Criminal Justice, Consumer Affairs, and Highway Traffic Safety. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also made a presentation.

"Information is power," said conference participant Gloria Soto, director of the office of the government of Puerto Rico in Newark. "And here we are getting the information that will help us assist our community in addressing the issues affecting us. If we know where to go and how the process works, when our constituents come to our office, we will be prepared to address their needs in a more efficient manner."

Soto said many Latinos refrain from complaining about discrimination "because they fear it will have an impact on their immigration status."

But J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the state's Division on Civil Rights, said his office investigates all bias complaints, regardless of immigration status.

"It does not matter," he said. "Our law protects anyone who steps in the state of New Jersey."

Vespa-Papaleo said directors of several state agencies participated in the conference "so that the Latino leaders can get to know them directly, the people making the decisions, so that they can call us to task on the issues, and so that they can help us in this process of protecting our residents."

He said a similar summit was held for the state's Asian-American community leaders last October.

"This summit is extremely important because in civil rights, the Latino community is one of the communities that has the most trouble with discrimination in employment, housing, or because of the color of our skin," said Guillermo Beytagh-Maldonado, director of the Puerto Rican Action Board, a community-service agency in New Brunswick.

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