CRIME: Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks At Unsung Heroes: A Civil Rights Division Celebration Of Diverse Veterans

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Remarks as Delivered

Thank you so much Louis, and good afternoon. It’s an honor to be at this important gathering.

On behalf of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative I wish a happy and belated Veterans Day for all of our servicemembers past and present who have sacrificed so much for this country. We owe you an incomprehensible debt of gratitude.

Today, we come together to honor all veterans in the country, as well as our respected veteran colleagues here at the department. The gathering will also be focusing on diverse veterans who have served their country despite being subject to unfair barriers. Many veterans from different communities have offered their services to defend this country, sometimes at disproportionately high rates, even though they were not provided with the same freedoms and protections in the country they served.

This is especially true for Black Americans who served in every conflict since its founding, despite being subject to inequalities during slavery and other periods. Crispus Attucks was the Revolutionary War’s first casualty. He was a Black man who died protesting British oppression during the Boston Massacre. Today, Black Americans make up nearly 20% of enlisted military members, more than their 13% share of the U.S. population.

Or consider the Japanese-American veterans that served during World War II while our government operated its notorious and shameful Japanese internment camp. One segregated Japanese-American unit, the 442nd Regiment and its 100th Infantry Battalion, became one of the most decorated military units in United States history.

Hispanic, Latino Americans have made significant contributions to the military since the Civil War. Their representation in active duty personnel has increased by three times since 1980.. These veterans served even though they did not have U.S. citizenship and were sometimes deported. The Department of Homeland Security now has a program in place to help non-citizen vets and facilitate naturalization.

Despite facing many barriers to openly serving, brave LGBTQ+ military personnel continue to enlist at a higher rate than the U.S. share. According to estimates, transgender Americans are serving at twice the rate as the general population. While the military now allows LGBTQ+ people to serve openly, it was not long ago that government policy discriminated against them.

These are just a few examples that show the extraordinary service of diverse veterans against discrimination. We are grateful for your courage.

The Civil Rights Division is committed to protecting the rights of veterans and servicemembers. Your military service shouldn’t lead to lenders evicting your home. Service-based discrimination should not be a reason for you to be fired from your job. Even if you are stationed far from home, there should be no barriers to your right to vote in federal elections. You should also not be subject to discrimination on the basis of disability. Every day, the Civil Rights Division ensures that these rights are protected.

For instance, since 2009, the department has reached settlements under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, otherwise known as SCRA, providing more than $474 million in compensation to over 120,000 servicemembers, and close to a million in civil penalties. The SCRA provides protection for military personnel and their families when dealing with vehicle repossessions and home foreclosures, as well as leasing agreements, evictions and interest rates on financial obligations. Two important SCRA cases were recently settled by the department, which I will briefly mention.

On November 2, Father & Son Moving & Storage was settled in an SCRA matter. This storage company is located in Massachusetts. Without obtaining a court order required by the SCRA, the company sold the belongings of Charles Cornacchio, a United States Air Force Technical Sergeant. The items included personal photos, mementos, military gear, and heirloom furniture. Under the consent order, the company will pay the servicemember $60,000 in damages, along with a $5,000 civil penalty to the United States.

Just a few days earlier, on September 29, we resolved a case against American Honda Finance Corporation, which we alleged violated the SCRA by unlawfully penalizing 714 servicemembers who terminated their vehicle leases early due to military orders. The consent order requires the company to pay over $1.5 million to the servicemembers and over a $64,000 civil penalty, as well as to make changes to its policies and provide training to their employees going forward.

The Civil Rights Division enforces the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Law, also known under USERRA. This important statute allows servicemembers to resume civilian employment once they have completed their military service. They will be eligible for the same seniority, status, and rate of pay as if they were employed continuously by their civilian employer. USERRA also prohibits discrimination on the basis of past, present and future military service. Since the division began enforcing USERRA in 2004, we have filed over 100 lawsuits and favorably resolved close to 200 complaints through consent decrees or private settlements.

For example, last spring, the department obtained a close to $200,000 settlement under USERRA on behalf of Lieutenant Colonel Louis Rego, a U.S. Army Reservist. Maimonides Medical Centre in Brooklyn, New York, Lieutenant Colonel Rego was fired from his civilian position as a pharmacist during his deployment, violating USERRA. The department also filed a lawsuit against Prince George County, Virginia, at the end September. We claim that the county violated USERRA by failing to reemploy Major Mark Gunn, Virginia Army National Guard, as a detective police officer after he returned from active service. Major Gunn was instead demoted to a position as a patrol officer, which resulted in him retiring early and losing his pension benefits. The Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia are currently pursuing the matter jointly.

The Civil Rights Division enforces the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. This law, also known as UOCAVA protects servicemembers and their families’ right to vote absentee in federal elections, even if they are away from home due to military orders. To ensure that overseas and military voters can submit their ballots in the time allowed, 2020, filed statements of interest in cases in Georgia or Massachusetts.

The Civil Rights Division serves veterans and military communities by enforcing more broadly-applicable civil rights statutes. In May, for example, we reached settlements with two community college under the Americans with Disabilities Act. These agreements were to remove obstacles that prevented students with disabilities from accessing sidewalks, parking lots, and signage. The Central Texas College of Killeen in Texas and Tidewater Community College, Virginia both have large veteran student populations.

In an earlier case, the Fair Housing Act was used to sue the City of Jacksonville for refusing to allow the construction of a facility that would house chronically homeless veterans. They did this based on stereotypes of veterans’ disabilities. Our resolution required the city to provide a $1.5 million grant to build additional supportive housing in the city, pay $400,000 to the nonprofit developer, pay a $25,000 civil penalty, and amend its zoning practices.

The Civil Rights Division also advises the Department of Defense Education Activity also known as the DoDEA, which operates 160 schools in 11 countries and is responsible for educating more than 60,000 military-connected children – on its obligations to comply with civil rights standards, as required under Executive Order 13160. This division assists in ensuring that the children of servicemembers can attend schools free from discrimination.

I want to briefly mention the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative (or SVI), which brings us all together today and embodies the department’s commitment to the military community. This initiative was created by the department in 2014, in order to coordinate and increase our efforts to protect veterans, servicemembers and their families. They do this by training, outreach, policy development, coordination with federal partners, which is why we are so proud of their many achievements.

We are not the only ones to have seen their amazing work. Congress passed the SVI Act at the end of last yea, which legalized the Civil Rights Division’s initiative and increased its mission and responsibilities. This bipartisan effort by Congress to strengthen and codify this important initiative is something I appreciate.

I am proud to announce that Attorney General Garland has issued a memorandum in honor of Veterans Day. It reinforces the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights for servicemembers, veterans, and their families. The memorandum instructs SVI to expand targeted outreach to veterans, service members and their families regarding federal civil rights statutes. It also charges them to work closely to the department’s Office for Access to Justice to improve servicemembers’ and veterans access to justice in both the criminal and civil legal systems.

In closing, I would like to take a moment to recognize the 33,000 veterans who are a part of our Justice Department family. All of you know what it means for someone to serve before themselves. You have served this country with admirable merit by transferring to civilian life to fight for justice and uphold the rule of law. Let me assure you on behalf of the Civil Rights Division that we are ready to defend our veterans and servicemembers every day so that you can also enjoy the freedoms you so bravely fought for.

We are proud to be there for you and thank you. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside you today.

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