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In Search of Common Ground : Luke Williams’ simple philosophy of basic human rights and respect for all has catapulted him into the leadership of a major immigrant rights coalition.

Special To The Times

When Luke Williams speaks, his hands unconsciously brush back and forth across the table, as if gathering pieces of a puzzle that only he sees.

It is a near-obsession for him, this puzzle of race. The way pieces break off or disappear, just when it seems everything should be coming together.

He peppers his speech with words like “linkages” and “common ground,” and at regular intervals issues his mantra: Civil rights and immigration rights are human rights, and that’s what we need to start caring about.

That philosophy has vaulted Williams, a 35-year-old attorney, to the leadership of CHIRLA--the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles--the first African American to lead a major immigration rights group in the nation.

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Activists see the appointment as a signal that the time has come for organizations that focus on only one ethnic group to unite over broader issues such as police abuse, affirmative action and fair housing and employment.

“Sometimes there’s a tendency to look at these [issues] as separate, distinct areas,” Williams says. “They really all fall under an umbrella of human rights. It’s just under a different context.”

Williams’ life has been one of shuffling contexts. Born in Lompoc, he has lived in the East and the South, served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, and chronicled human rights abuses in El Salvador and Guatemala. He speaks Spanish, Tagalog and two Filipino dialects fluently.

Even Williams admits he took a strange path since his days as a political science major at USC, when he was primed for a career in civil rights litigation.

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His family thought it was odd when Williams broke the news that he was joining the Peace Corps to fight poverty in the Philippines. That’s what rich kids do, they said. Isn’t there enough poverty you can fight right here?

Williams laughs when he recalls those arguments, which he doesn’t hear much these days.

To Williams, the Philippines in the late 1980s was just the right place for an impressionable college graduate interested in civil rights. There, he watched the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the election of Corazon Aquino.

“It was just a phenomenal experience to be in Manila as thousands of Filipinos, rich and poor, poured into the streets and had this whole nonviolent [protest], much like the civil rights movement here,” Williams said.

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After getting a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Williams received a fellowship from the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and went to work for El Rescate in Los Angeles.

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Workers at El Rescate, a Pico-Union social service agency, recall an industrious and outspoken young attorney holding meetings with clients over breakfast, getting a community development branch up and running, and balancing a load of local immigration cases with abuse cases in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Williams also discovered a consumer fraud case involving false money orders while working at El Rescate, said Tim Everett, the organization’s director of legal services.

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“What I thought was most impressive was his ability to make things happen, to be a good public voice and make connections,” Everett said.

What Williams saw in Central America during his work with El Rescate only served to strengthen his convictions about the categories that sometimes clutter up the issue of human rights.

“Some of the chapters of the Christopher Commission report [on police abuse] could have been taken out of a number of chapters in a number of Third World or developing countries,” Williams said.

“Irrespective of any status--undocumented, documented, employed, unemployed--there are certain human rights and a certain level of respect that we need to have for everyone.”

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Williams knows he may sound too visionary for the times. After all, Proposition 187 stirred up intense racial animosities and has been followed by attempts to roll back affirmative action.

“I have no illusion about the difficulty that is there,” he said. “To talk about rights of any kind in this particular environment, I think it’s going to be real difficult.”

Nonetheless, the coalition, which consists of 125 community service and civil rights groups in Southern California, will continue its mission to improve conditions for Los Angeles’ immigrant community. The group’s projects include campaigns for new citizens and projects to organize domestic workers and day laborers.

Most of those issues already require building links between ethnic communities, Williams noted. Even before his tenure, the coalition earned an award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for its work diffusing tensions between African American residents and Latino day laborers in Ladera Heights. And the group has begun bringing together African, Russian and Asian immigration groups for large-scale naturalization interviews.

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“It’s just so easy to say that what we’ve got to focus in on is the African American community and, ‘I really don’t care about what happens in East Los Angeles or what happens in West Los Angeles,’ ” said Williams, his hands still working at those puzzle pieces. “But that’s like saying, ‘I don’t care what happens to my sister’s kids or my brother’s kids, and I’m only concerned about what happens to my family.’ ”

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The Beat

Today’s Hearts of the City focuses on Luke Williams and his efforts to unite ethnic communities over human rights issues. For more information on how you can help, contact the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles: (213) 353-1333.

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