U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Saturday told an Hispanic civil rights group that the nation's fight to ensure racial equality, fairness and justice for all "remains far from over" and he vowed to step up prosecution of those who discriminate against Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities.
He thanked the National Council of La Raza for leading the way for decades to protect Latinos and other disenfranchised immigrants and Americans. And he said President Barack Obama's Justice Department would work hard this election year to ensure voters have equal ballot access no matter their heritage or race.
"Our nation's struggle to overcome injustice and eliminate disparities remains far from over," Holder said, speaking to a luncheon audience of 1,850 people on the opening day of the four-day conference in Las Vegas. "We have further to travel on the road to equality."
The nation's first African-American attorney general, Holder was the keynote speaker at the conference of the largest U.S. civil rights organization representing Latinos, a rising political power in Nevada and the nation. In general, Hispanics are a Democratic-leaning voting bloc that could decide the White House race.
President Obama is sending Vice President Joe Biden to address the group on Tuesday, the last day of the conference of 5,000 La Raza members at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney sent one of his top Hispanic advisers to the conference. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wasn't offered a speaking role, but he greeted people attending a Latino Expo on Saturday as part of the conference.
Holder appeared relaxed, joking it was good to get out of Washington. Two weeks ago, lawmakers voted to hold him in contempt of Congress as Republicans pummel him over a botched government gun-tracking operation nicknamed " Fast and Furious."
"It's particularly nice to be outside of Washington, D.C.," Holder said.
A member of the audience shouted, "We love you!"
"I love you back," Holder said. "It's been an interesting few weeks in Washington."
In his 18-minute speech, Holder said he was pleased the U.S. Supreme Court recently threw out most of an Arizona law to crack down on illegal immigrants in the border state next to Mexico. But Holder said he was disappointed the high court upheld the most controversial part of the law that would allow police to ask for papers proving a person's immigration status if the person is stopped for some other reason.
The "show me your papers" part of the law must be narrowly enforced, the high court said, or it, too, would be open to a separate legal challenge.
The attorney general said the Justice Department would be watching enforcement of the Arizona law carefully, ready to intervene if it is abused and used to indiscriminately stop suspected illegal immigrants.
"Such laws cannot be seen as a license to engage in racial profiling," Holder said to applause.
Holder praised Obama for recently instructing federal authorities not to deport young adult children of undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States. Instead, the Obama administration will launch a program to let young immigrants apply for two-year work permits.
Holder said the administration would continue to press Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for those young immigrants who attend college or join the U.S. military. Meanwhile, he said there's no reason to waste money and effort to deport them.
Obama's new policy will "make our immigration enforcement effort not only more efficient and cost-effective, but also more just," Holder said. "There's no question this action represents a significant and a long overdue improvement of our immigration policy."
U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., addressed the conference lunch ahead of Holder. She, too, praised Obama's actions on immigration and called for passage of the DREAM Act . She also contrasted her views with those of her Republican opponent for U.S. Senate, incumbent Sen. Dean Heller, who doesn't support the DREAM Act and has praised the Arizona law.
"He says he wants to bring it here to Nevada," Berkley said. "Nevada doesn't want the Arizona law. Nevada doesn't need the Arizona law. And Nevada will do just fine without it."
Holder praised Berkley, calling the Democratic supporter of Obama "an extremely effective advocate for the people of Nevada."
"And I think she would make an excellent U.S. senator," he said.
Heller did not attend the La Raza conference. His campaign said he was spending the weekend celebrating his 28th wedding anniversary with his family and campaigning in Reno. Heller is among the Nevada politicians on the conference's honorary host committee, however.
Heller and Romney campaign officials manned booths at the Latino Expo, a free event for Hispanics and other members of the community being held with the conference. Democrats also reached out to the Latino crowd with more than 25,000 people expected to visit the free expo.
In an interview at the expo, Romney's Hispanic adviser, Gutierrez, said Latinos should have a natural affinity for Republicans' conservative policies, including "family, faith and hard work."
Gutierrez criticized Obama for not working on comprehensive immigration reform and only offering Hispanics short-term solutions in an election-year pitch for votes. He said stimulus spending didn't offer long-term job prospects for Americans, including Hispanics who suffer higher rates of unemployment - about 11 percent compared with 8.2 percent overall.
Gutierrez said Obama's offer of two-year work permits for young adult children of immigrants was a "patchwork solution" that didn't solve the long-running undocumented immigrant problem.
The presidential election, Gutierrez said, would come down to who could do a better job at boosting the economy to create jobs and improve the lives of Hispanics and all Americans. He said Romney's business experience makes him more qualified than Obama, a former U.S. senator.
"It's about who can do the job because this country is in trouble," Gutierrez said. "We need the right leadership. This is the biggest CEO job in the world. It is obvious that we need a change. We need a positive change."
In recent weeks, Romney has been stepping up his outreach to Latinos, particularly in battleground states such as Nevada where they made up about 15 percent of the electorate in the last election. Four years ago, Obama overwhelmingly won Hispanics in Nevada by a ratio of 3 -to-1 over his GOP presidential foe, John McCain, and he remains popular among Latinos.
In June, Romney named dozens of top Republican Hispanics as national and state advisers to his campaign, including Gutierrez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Gutierrez was commerce secretary for four years under former President George W. Bush.
Sandoval delivered a videotaped welcome to the La Raza conference.
Lisa Navarrete, an adviser to the president of the La Raza organization, said Romney lost a good chance to address Latinos. She said his Hispanic adviser Gutierrez could only come on Saturday and the conference organizers couldn't fit him into the schedule at the last minute.
"We think it was a missed opportunity," Navarrete said. "Our community doesn't know Governor Romney very well. If he wants to engage the community he has to address the community. For us, we're disappointed."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.