Community Townhall Meeting with Attorney General Karl Racine
Updated: Feb 28
Nov 21, 2018
Prepared by Trabajadores Unidos de Washington DC
On November 20, 2018 Attorney General Karl Racine reached out to DC Latinos to hold a first-ever town hall meeting to talk about three issues of concern to this community: wage theft, immigration and housing. A couple of months ago, Racine’s staff contacted Arturo Griffiths, Executive Director of Trabajadores Unidos de Washington DC (TUWDC), to develop ways on how to be more effective in targeting the wage theft epidemic affecting many DC day laborers. As a result of these discussions and strategizing, Racine suggested that he hold an outreach meeting to the DC Latino community. Racine’s staff, together with TUWDC staff, organized the town hall meeting.
When Racine first addressed the audience, he commented that he was shocked to see such a large crowd assembled at the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center. He mused that when staff first suggested he schedule the town hall meeting on a Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, he countered that nobody would turn out. Boy, was he wrong! The Carlos Rosario auditorium, where immigrants from all walks of life take classes to improve their language and job skills, was packed with an overflow crowd of 350 people. While all speakers spoke in English, translation was provided in three languages: Spanish, French and Amharic.
After a brief introduction, Racine led a dialogue that included presentations by five community non-profits that address these issues on a daily basis: CAIR (Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition), CARECEN, Trabajadores Unidos de Washington DC, DC Jobs with Justice, and the Latino Economic Development Center. The Director of the DC Office of Latino Affairs and the Attorney General’s Public Advocacy Office were also present to answer questions.
Four years ago for the first time in DC history, Karl Racine was elected DC Attorney General. A lawyer by training, Racine is the child of Haitian immigrant parents. Upon taking office, Racine began a new era of independence for the agency. He created a public advocacy division that uses legal actions to defend the rights of DC residents. This division is focused on housing, community justice, and public integrity. One of the AG’s policy priorities has been creating a legal strategy to confront wage theft violations in the District. TUWDC, and other non-profits, have struggled with inadequate and terribly slow enforcement of DC wage theft laws. Wage theft covers a variety of infractions that occur when workers do not receive their legally or contractually promised wages. Common forms of wage theft are non-payment of overtime, not giving workers their last paycheck after a worker leaves a job, not paying for all the hours worked, not paying minimum wage, and even not paying a worker at all. What many people do not know is that all employers are obligated to pay a person’s wages, no matter one’s immigration status. Contractors and business owners often use the threat of deportation to deny a person his or her rightfully earned wages. Studies recognize that day laborers are among the most vulnerable and exploited groups of workers in our community.
Currently the DC Wage Hour Office, which is part of the DC Department of Employment Services, is charged with enforcing labor laws, including wage theft violations. But this process is often flawed, inadequate or even if a case does move forward, the worker does not recover lost wages. Attorney General Racine has taken a lead in trying to tackle this issue. In part, the forum was an effort to educate the Latino community about the wage theft problem. During this town hall meeting, Racine encouraged individuals who experienced wage theft to call his office.
Immigration issues were a second topic that galvanized the community and dialogue that night. According to Kathryn Doan, CAIR’s Executive Director, there are currently 13 immigrant detention centers in Maryland and Virginia where 1,200 immigrants are being held. While DC government currently funds several local nonprofits and lawyers to provide legal services to immigrants, whether undocumented or documented, these tax dollars cannot be used to help undocumented persons who are detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). As several participants pointed out, other cities and states do provide legal resources for detained individuals, but DC Mayor Bowser has refused to do so.
A second issue that came up during the question and answer session related to whether or not DC police turn immigrants over to ICE. Racine acknowledged that residents had called his office complaining about police targeting immigrants and turning them over to ICE agents. Racine said when he received these calls, he immediately called Police Chief Peter Newsham. Racine said that Newsham denied that his officers are involved with ICE. As the questions continued, Racine stated “I welcome further discussion, and I would be happy to be a facilitator for a meeting between the community and DC’s Police Chief”. Racine went on to say: “it is important that laws are applied fairly and not targeted”.
Most unsettling was Doan’s statement that “ICE has a presence in DC Superior Courts”. One of the problems is the District’s unique situation. Many DC residents charged with certain crimes will be prosecuted by federal prosecutors. Federal marshals are present at these hearings, and during these anti-immigrant times ICE agents will often be waiting in court buildings to detain undocumented immigrants who face criminal charges. Likewise, if a witness comes to these courts, that person could be detained if agents suspect that he or she is eligible for deportation. A recent case illustrates the problem. An undocumented DC Latino immigrant was arrested and charged with stealing a woman’s purse. When he appeared in court, he was detained by ICE and faced immediate deportation.
The DC court system is very unusual because here the federal courts often fulfill the function of state courts in other locales. If DC immigrants face criminal charges and have to appear in court, they must go before the DC Superior Court. DC is very peculiar in that most cases are prosecuted by federal prosecutors, even though they are being prosecuted in DC Superior Court, which is not a federal court. Because DC is not a state, it does not have what most jurisdictions refer to as a district attorney. The United States Attorney General’s office handles misdemeanor offenses. All felonies and the majority of other crimes will be prosecuted by this office and therefore will be prosecuted by a federal prosecutor.
Both audience members and the panelists brought up several other immigration issues. A major problems facing immigrants desperate to “fix their immigration situation” is that they often go to lawyers who charge high fees, promise the impossible or even have no legal expertise with immigration law. In the Latino community, many individuals seek out notary publics, often paying up front for notary legal services. In Latin America notaries are often the equivalent of lawyers, but in the US notaries have very limited responsibilities. Their primary function is to authenticate documents. At this point Racine chimed in to mention that in Haiti “people believe that notaries are as important as Jesus”. Many Latinos are unaware of the differences between notaries in Latin America and the US. Educating the audience about “notary scams” was an important educational goal of this town hall gathering.
Many questions were asked by the audience – running the gamut from “is my employer required to give me sick leave” to “who should I call if I have mold in my apartment”. Racine and his staff encouraged the audience to call his office with their issues and complaints. But perhaps one of his most unexpected exhortations was to encourage Latinos to run for office. He recognized that this population is underrepresented in the District elected offices, and currently there are no Latino city council members.
The evening ended when one young DACA student rose to ask the Attorney General if he was doing anything to help DACA students (referred to as “Dreamers”) who could face deportation because the Trump Administration is trying to end the program. DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — has provided deferred action of deportation and a work permit for certain young people who were brought to the US illegally by their immigrant parents. Racine responded that in 2017 his office had joined a coalition that filed a lawsuit to protect “Dreamers”. The lawsuit alleges that Trump Administration violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Photos by Celestino Barrera and Alvaro Argueta