Latinos
"If you want to reduce violence, you have to help reintegration"
Salvadoran Alex Sánchez works to employ former criminals. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, he spoke about politicians who campaign against Latinos and how Central Americans live.

70 million people in the United States have criminal records, and according to a study by RAND, the impact of programs designed for ex-offenders can improve the reality of many Hispanics in the United States.

This is the case of Alex Sánchez, director NGO Homies Unidos, a social organization in Los Angeles that helps reintegrate former gang members like him. When Alex Sánchez was nine years old, he arrived in the United States undocumented and soon joined MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha, the largest and most recognized gang in the United States).

The organization Sánchez was part was created by a group of Salvadorans who fled the civil war in their country. Nowadays, and according to an FBI report, there are also immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and other Central and South American countries among its members. For the US government, gang members are "criminals" who represent a serious challenge to national security.

LPO spoke with Alex Sánchez about the importance of the reintegration of ex-offenders and the impact on the Latin American community.

The story of your life is an example of how to go to prison and reintegrate into society, but how did your journey begin?

I could blame my parents... but I already realized that no, that they tried to discipline me and did the best they could. I could blame the United States for intervening in El Salvador for so many years in a war that never ended, but I look at things and I say... when I came here as a little child with my little brother, no community welcomed me. At one point I was used to violence and that is why joining the gangs "was something natural."

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Ex-offenders face limitations in obtaining employment, transportation, and housing. What is the reality of these people and the biggest obstacle they face?

One of the main issues to address in reducing crime and violence is that when a person is released from prison he or she has a place to go to work, a place to live, and a place to look for resources. With this RAND report we have detected that many obstacles that the former prisoner must face when regaining his or her freedom have to do with insecurity. We as an organization receive young boys looking for help, and we see which employer can give them work. In two weeks, on average, we have to get a job, since they have no resources and families are usually unable to contribute. This study is critical and must be taken into account when making policies in cities or states. If you want to reduce violence, you have to help reintegration.

I could blame the United States for intervening in El Salvador for so many years in a war that never ended, but I look at things and I say... when I came here as a little child with my little brother, no community welcomed me.

There are more and more Hispanics in prison in the United States: for the first time in history, the number of Latinos convicted exceeds - in absolute terms - that of criminals from other ethnic groups in the country. How do you see this reality?

It is not only the concern of the difficulties faced by these people. The Latino community faces many more problems, for example due to immigration status. They need to return to their families and deportation is added. It is much more difficult for them to look for a job with the dilemma of being undocumented. The Latino community has a very big problem when it comes to criminal justice, but it has not been the point of the discussion of what reintegration means for this population.

Linking Latinos to crime is something recent. We saw it very clear when Trump talked about Salvadoran gang members. Many of these Central Americans look for a job and people assume they may be gang members. These things are used to discriminate against our population, but it is due to the rhetoric of certain politicians who stereotype a certain population. The same thing happened with the stigma of rapists with Mexicans. It also happens with housing: they are denied resources.

"If you want to reduce violence, you have to help reintegration"

Is there any political connotation in managing the reintegration of ex-offenders depending on who governs?

Reality ends up being similar. People who have been incarcerated see the dynamic of what brings them to prison. We can see where these people come from and verify that they there have been no services and opportunities in their communities. This is the classic injustice where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is a perception that Latinos who are incarcerated are going to vote Democrat, but this is not true.

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Most companies consider hiring ex-offenders based on tax incentives. Do these initiatives work?

The study is somewhat mixed because in California we work on job applications. By checking that box as ex-incarcerated, they no longer called them for an interview. By removing that box from the application, we hoped that there would be more opportunities for those with backgrounds to demonstrate their skills for those positions. But through this study we have seen that the employer perceives by the appearance that he or she could have been imprisoned and they no longer even call them for interviews. They have the right to ask for your criminal record or make a record and this leads many of the ex-incarcerated to a vulnerability. The employer can also abuse their labor rights.

People who have been incarcerated see the dynamic of what brings them to prison. We can see where these people come from and verify that there have been no services and opportunities in their communities. If you want to reduce violence, you have to help reintegration.

There are organizations like ours that are willing to work with employers who accept people with criminal records. In return, they will have training. There is a very large demand for work, but you have to look for places with sensitivity to be able to give the opportunity to someone who made a mistake and wants to reintegrate. There are many corporations and we ask them not to give up. When you go alone, you face many things, that is why we recommend them to look for organizations that can help them.

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