A meeting of national Latino organizations here took a tough line on seeking to repeal employer sanctions but some observers believe that the mere fact the groups came together was the gathering's most significant accomplishment.
"I can't tell you how important this meeting is," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), the only member of Congress who took part in the session. "This is really a historic moment for us."
The meeting, known as the Hispanic Leadership Roundtable, was called to improve working relationships among Latino groups, which occasionally have been at odds over legislative goals.
About 90 high-level representatives from Mexican-American, Puerto Rican and Cuban-American groups--including 15 people from Los Angeles--held a daylong discussion April 22. They discussed employer sanctions, ways to increase support for the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1990, media portrayals of Latinos, legislation to require government set-asides for minority contractors and efforts to increase presidential appointments and rank-and-file federal jobs for Latinos.
On the second day, the Latino leaders split up into small groups and presented their policy stands in meetings with members of Congress and the Bush Administration.
"It was a highly significant meeting," said Francisco Garcia-Rodriguez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Although we might have political differences, we found that on these issues, there was unanimity."
But while agreeing that the meeting was helpful, Charles Kamasaki, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, said: "The jury is still out. If we go back to our organizations, communities, neighborhoods on four or five major issues and hold politicians accountable, then we can say the meeting has been meaningful.
"Otherwise," he said, "it was just a meeting."
Conference participants discussed ways to set up a more formal network to follow up on the issues discussed. For example, they decided to set up working groups on immigration and civil rights issues.
Torres, who was recently named to be one of 12 deputy whips by the Democratic leadership, said the Hispanic Caucus in Congress would be glad to cooperate with a top-level group that the Latino organizations may establish.
The Latino leaders conceded that they have probably lost this year's drive to remove employer sanctions from the 1986 immigration law, but said they should target for defeat a "hit list" of key members of Congress who refuse to support repeal legislation.
Several speakers said a system of fines levied on employers who hire illegal aliens had led to a pervasive hiring bias against Latinos who speak with an accent or appear to be foreigners.
The General Accounting Office concluded in a March 29 report that "widespread discrimination" is practiced by an estimated 19% of employers nationally and 29% of employers in the Los Angeles area.
The law provides that Congress could have removed the employer sanctions by passage of a joint resolution within 30 days after the GAO report. After that time, sanctions cannot be removed without passage of a bill--a much more time-consuming and uncertain process.
Referring to passage of the 1986 immigration law, Andrew Hernandez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, said, "If we cut a deal and it ain't kept, then there should be hell raised and hell to pay."
Since an overwhelming number of Latino voters can be expected to oppose sanctions, Hernandez said, it could be made a test for supporting members of Congress seeking reelection this fall.
"We need a hit list of those people in our own back yard--those congressmen who are wavering," Hernandez said without mentioning anyone who might be placed on such a list.
He urged Latino leaders to demand that their senators and representatives in Congress take a "yes" or "no" stand on the issue of sanctions, adding: "That would strike fear and dread into the heart of any politician."
Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza said the outlook was gloomy for abolishing the sanctions this year.
"The fact is that a lot of people don't care about discrimination against Hispanics," Kamasaki said. "There is a view that Hispanics haven't suffered enough."
Calling for retaliation at the polls, he added: "We need an acceleration of political activity. This is an election year and we have to make an example of some people."
Garcia-Rodriguez, national director of the immigrant rights program for MALDEF, said Congress' refusal to adopt a resolution for quick repeal of employer sanctions did not mean final defeat for Latino organizations.
"It's just a first skirmish in what we believe will be a prolonged war," he told a reporter. "The sanctions debate is not going to go away."
Later, addressing the conference of about 75 national Latino leaders, he opposed legislation that would preserve the sanctions but would try to mitigate discrimination against members of this country's Latino community.
"The only logical solution is repeal of this discriminatory statute," he said.
Alan Clayton, executive director of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the conference was put together on short notice to respond to two timely issues: employer sanctions and the civil rights legislation.
Clayton, who lauded the "harmonious meeting," said a larger meeting is planned for next year.