Skip to comments.Cuban American from Miami leads U.S. attack on slavery
Posted on 06/14/2004 4:32:01 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
When Alex Acosta talks about the Justice Department's battle against modern-day slavery, the passion in his voice comes from one stark image in his memory.
It's a photograph he saw a few years ago of a tiny room where a 14-year-old Mexican girl was held captive: just three walls, a curtain and a twin bed.
The girl slept there, lived there and was forced to have sex there with man after man, up to 30 a day, he said. There was only one personal item in the room: a teddy bear, the last remnant of her lost childhood.
''This is human trafficking,'' he said, punctuating each word, as he announced a new antislavery initiative last week in Tampa. ``It is evil. It is hideous. It is one of the most horrendous crimes of our society.''
Last August, Acosta became the first Hispanic to lead the Department of Justice's civil rights division. The Cuban American from Miami who entered Harvard University at age 17 is now the point man in the government's drive to halt trafficking of an estimated 15,000 people a year into the United States for slavery.
''He's been an amazing voice for this issue,'' said Angela Arboleda, civil rights policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a proponent for Hispanics in Washington. ``He understands it from a human rights perspective.''
Conservative, smart and young -- he is 35 -- Acosta has helped launch anti-trafficking campaigns this year in four cities: Phoenix, Philadelphia, Atlanta and now Tampa. He made more news last month when he reopened the investigation into the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth whose abduction and killing in Mississippi in 1955 helped spark the civil rights movement.
There is a unifying factor in most civil rights work, Acosta says. It's fear: The fear of blacks in the South during the 1950s and '60s. The fear of trafficked slaves, far from home. The fear of immigrants, unsure of how their new country will receive them.
Acosta tells a personal story about fear. While at Harvard Law School, he got a call from home. His grandmother, in her 80s, worried that a proposed law would cut her Social Security benefits. The bill applied only to illegal immigrants -- and his grandmother had her green card. But she was too fearful of the government. So he helped her study for the citizenship test, the only way to make her feel secure.
''One thing I've come to realize is the role of fear in our society,'' Acosta said. ``I know the fear my grandmother had.''
Privately, some black and civil liberties groups are taking a wait-and-see approach on Acosta. Long before he assumed his post, leading black organizations were critical of the Bush administration's civil rights record.
Acosta has little litigation experience -- he has tried only two cases because he has worked mostly in appeals -- and his earlier role as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, under the leadership of Ralph F. Boyd Jr., left some minority groups wondering whether he would be an advocate for their causes.
But his confirmation hearing drew support from La Raza, the National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium and the Arab American Institute.
''He is not just a political appointee, but he is also a Republican insider with great instincts on some of the issues that our immigrant communities have been affected by,'' said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a Democrat. ``He's made a real effort to reach out and help.''
Rene Alexander Acosta is the only child of Rene and Delia Acosta, whose families came to Miami from Havana when they were teenagers. The family's focus was always on his education. He learned Spanish from his maternal grandmother, who cared for him during the day while his parents worked.
''I had the kind of family where I was told it was my job to study,'' he said. ``They would work out the finances.''
His parents still live in the Old Cutler area. His mother is a senior paralegal at a Coral Gables law firm; his father works in a Kendall cellphone store. They happily sacrificed to send him to Gulliver Preparatory School and Harvard.
''He was not a child that you had to push. He always wanted to push himself,'' Delia Acosta said. Her son liked science, she said, and the family thought he would become a doctor, as his grandfather had been in Cuba.
''Going into the law didn't surprise me, because he always wanted to make a difference,'' she said. ``He feels he can do that in this job.''
Childhood friend Anne Cruz-Alvarez recalled that in high school he could quote passages from Latin texts and kept an extensive insect collection, which he studied.
Acosta wasn't quite a straight-A student, his mother said, but he skipped his senior year at Gulliver when Harvard accepted him early.
He changed his major from pre-med to economics as a sophomore, and after graduation briefly worked in international banking at Shearson Lehman before returning to Harvard for a law degree.
Acosta says he went into law in part because he was intrigued by its enduring qualities. He remembers thumbing through ancient legal texts in the bowels of Harvard's law library and being struck by how many of those decisions still held true.
''The precedents in those books still affect us today,'' he said.
He was serving on the National Labor Relations Board when the civil rights nomination was announced.
`STAMPED FOR SUCCESS'
''Was he always stamped for success? Yes, completely,'' said Cruz-Alvarez, a South Miami lawyer. ``We knew he was going to do something. We just weren't sure what it would be.''
His division's work combating human trafficking is already showing results. The office has 163 open investigations, more than twice the number open in January 2001, a statistic he cites proudly.
The ties to family are as strong as ever. His parents clip all stories mentioning him. He flew his mother north for Mother's Day. Until his grandmother died this year, he spoke with her almost every day by phone.
''My life is in Washington for now,'' he said, ``but I could see possibly returning to South Florida at some point.''
Their anti-Bush drum-beat is what it is, partisan.
"Acosta tells a personal story about fear. While at Harvard Law School, he got a call from home. His grandmother, in her 80s, worried that a proposed law would cut her Social Security benefits. The bill applied only to illegal immigrants -- and his grandmother had her green card. But she was too fearful of the government. So he helped her study for the citizenship test, the only way to make her feel secure."
Its all well and good that Acosta's grandmother had a green card and even became a US citizen. But my question is, did this woman EARN any Social Security benefits while she was here? Or did she just "qualify" simply because she crossed the river?
This is the kind of thing that makes the average American's blood boil. We work our whole lives paying into a benefit system that is continually whittled down to insolvency. And we have to accept the constant immigration of illegals into this country unabated? This is a true travesty! Let's see Acosta, or anyone else in the Bush administration, focus on stopping this flood tide!
The US CANNOT BE the savior of the world! It is folly to try! Whether its fighting and dieing in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to bring democracy to ungrateful and ignorant peoples, or opening our own country to every refugee group, near or far, that can't seem to change their own corner of the world for their own benefit. These kinds of ill-conceived missions will certainly toll the death knell for the United States! America will simple cease to exist, unable to sustain its own unique cultural and political traditions. We will ultimately unravel like the Soviet Union. What remains will be unrecognizable.
What is wrong with that as an ultimate goal?
You'd rather communism be the "savior" of the world?
Other than the lame mention of Zogby and his ilk, this was a good read.
True, but as you can see most do not feel that way.
The problem is that the US doesn't have bottomless resources to function as the ever-open wallet to bail out every other area of the globe. The blood and treasure for these kinds of enterprises ultimately comes from the American citizens, as soldiers or taxpayers. Why don't the people who want the US to function as such (like yourself) do so with their OWN asses or money, and leave the rest of us free to save America itself from leviathan government and imperial overstretch?
We all know the answer to that one!
"What is wrong with that as an ultimate goal?"
"You'd rather communism be the "savior" of the world?"
The goal is somewhat a lofty idea. The cost to Americans would be great if we tried to change the world by force would'nt you agree. Especially when I see that a percentage of Iraqis are not pleased that we have given them their freedom. It reminds me of the Jehovahs witnesses that sometimes come around my neighborhood. My father had made the mistake of allowing a group of them into our home once and it seemed like they were trying to force their views on us and show us why they are right and are beliefs were wrong. Now when I see them I can't help but have a nautious feeling in my gut and want to say a few unchristian like things to them. In their minds I guess they too believe they are saving the world..
Another Cuban-American family that through education and hard work encourage their child to be a success. Thank-you for posting Cincinatus' Wife.
Congratulations Mr. Acosta and family !
Are you aware that Bush is working to have Social Security benefits mailed directly to Mexico, to cover the illegals who worked in the US?
He also has been successful in turning over a few thousand truckers' jobs to Mexican nationals, just this past week.
"Are you aware that Bush is working to have Social Security benefits mailed directly to Mexico, to cover the illegals who worked in the US?"
"He also has been successful in turning over a few thousand truckers' jobs to Mexican nationals, just this past week."
Yes, I am aware of these things. But how is this germaine to the original point? Whether its done under a Republican or Democrat administration, its just fundamentally wrong! And most Americans (about 70 percent) think so as well!
Yes, congratulations to the Acostas for realizing the American dream through education and hard work. They're a shining example to so many and that, along with his public service, will open that dream to many others.