The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all individuals. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have made significant progress in expanding access to opportunity in recent decades. However, discrimination persists, and access to opportunity all too frequently remains elusive. As a result, the Civil Rights Division remains actively involved in the enforcement of civil rights laws in a variety of settings relevant to AAPI communities.
The Civil Rights Division continues to work to ensure that all students have access to equal educational opportunity. On December 2, 2011, the Departments of Justice and Education released two new guidance documents making clear that educators may consider race in carefully constructed plans to promote diversity or, in K-12 education, to reduce racial isolation. The guidance recognizes the learning benefits to students when campuses and schools include students of diverse backgrounds. On May 6, 2011, in conjunction with the Department of Education, the Division issued a letter clarifying school district obligations to enroll students regardless of their, or their parents’ or guardians’, actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status. The guidance was disseminated nationwide to ensure that undocumented students are able to enroll and participate in school.
The enforcement of the education provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains a top priority of the Division. In January 2010, the Division announced a settlement agreement with the School District of Philadelphia to resolve an investigation into a complaint of race, color and/or national origin-based harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, following the attack of 30 Asian students, approximately 13 of whom were sent to the emergency room. Schools have an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for everyone and we will continue to use all of the tools in our law enforcement arsenal to ensure that all students can go to school without fearing harassment.
Language barriers continue to present challenges for AAPI communities in a variety of settings. Since January 2009, the Division has opened 22 new investigations to determine if school districts, and in some instances, entire states, were complying with their obligations to ensure educational opportunities for students with limited English skills. In the voting context, the Division has reached groundbreaking settlements to ensure that citizens get the language assistance they need to cast an informed vote. One example includes the consent decree that the Division has obtained to protect Chinese-speaking voters in Alameda County, California. The Department has also played a lead role in the enforcement of Executive Order 13166, which is designed to ensure that people with limited English skills can meaningfully access a wide array of critical programs and services administered by or funded by the federal government.
Expanding equal employment opportunity has also been an important focus of the Division. The Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) of the Civil Rights Division enforces the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure that individuals are not being discriminated against based on citizenship or immigration status and national origin with respect to hiring, firing, and recruitment or referral for a fee. Currently, Chinese and Filipino immigrants have one of the highest naturalization rates in the nation, and OSC’s work ensures that individuals from these and other communities have equal employment opportunities. Over the past 18 months, OSC has initiated more proceedings and collected more civil monetary penalties than the entire preceding six years combined.
As the son of immigrants, I recognize that many of these challenges are both unique to certain groups but also cut across ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines. We continue to celebrate the accomplishment of AAPIs, while addressing emerging challenges in advancing civil rights. The Civil Rights Division is committed to continuing our work with AAPI communities and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to exercise their civil and constitutional rights.
Thomas E. Perez is the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.