Experts: Latino advocacy group in LI probe not "wacko"

James A. Cohen in Newsday, January 14, 2009

BY SUMATHI REDDY

Their legal challenges have forced school systems to create bilingual education programs, municipalities to translate voting materials, and police departments to increase the ranks of Latino officers.

Now, LatinoJustice PRDLEF - a New York City-based legal advocacy group - is taking on Suffolk County, prompting a federal investigation into specific cases of hate crimes that critics contend were not investigated or mishandled by Suffolk police.

Formed in 1972 as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the group is regarded as the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund for Latinos, its 27-member board consisting of attorneys from the country's top law firms.

"We are an organization that has represented the Latino community for many, many years," said Cesar A. Perales, president of the group. "Our mission is to promote justice for Latinos and we do that primarily through impact litigation."

With a budget of about $2 million from private donations, the group files six to 10 lawsuits a year, Perales said.

Originally focusing on Puerto Rican issues in New York City, the group has expanded its scope to include all Latinos and taken on cases across the country.

Its initial legal battles involved education issues, civil service exams and the translation of voting materials.

More recently, they've taken on anti-immigrant measures, such as an ordinance in Hazleton, Pa., that would have prevented landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants.

Experts said the group is highly regarded with a national profile.

Louis DeSipio, a professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, said LatinoJustice worked on voting rights cases ensuring more equitable electoral districting. "They've been around for a good amount of time and have worked on some very important civil rights cases over the years," DeSipio said.

James A. Cohen, a law professor at Fordham Law School, said getting the Justice Department to open an investigation was quite a feat.

"It's an enormous accomplishment to get their attention and to get them focused on this particular issue, and wacko groups can't do that," said Cohen, referring to a term Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy this week used to describe LatinoJustice.

Perales said he's not surprised.

"Mr. Levy apparently shoots from the hip and doesn't think about the impact of his words or of his policies," he said. "That is apparently what has led to so many of the interracial problems that exist in Suffolk County."

In a statement, Dan Aug, a Levy spokesman, said Levy did not call the group's members "wacko" but was referring to actions such as labeling Suffolk "as being racist for requesting that illegal aliens convicted of crimes be turned over to federal authorities for deportation."

Suffolk has been under scrutiny since the Nov. 8 attack and killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a gang of youths in Patchogue in what police have labeled a hate crime. Since then, dozens of Latinos have reported bias crimes, many at a Dec. 3 forum hosted by the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter of the Congregational Church of Patchogue.

There, victims told their stories and were taped by organizers. Wolter said he received a Suffolk County grand jury subpoena on Dec. 12 for the recordings. Bob Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, said he could not comment on the matter.