Retaining Hispanics, Spanish speakers key, Coast Guard chief says

The Coast Guard is focusing on retaining Hispanic and Spanish-speaking front-line workers as it aims to intercept illegal immigrants, the service's leader said Monday.

The Coast Guard's ability to maintain itself in national crises such as the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina has contributed to its best retention record since World War II, said Commandant Adm. Thad Allen at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington.

"We're doing very, very well," Allen told attendees of the conference, which is co-sponsored by Government Executive.

The current Coast Guard workforce both meets diversity goals and operational demands for having Spanish-speaking workers on hand to communicate with apprehended illegal immigrants, he said. Allen, who spent several years with the Coast Guard in south Florida, said as immigration enforcement is tightened, it's important that federal officials speak the language of those apprehended.

He said the battle against illegal immigration often is "gut-wrenching," especially when "young kids" are charged with the tasks of tracking, and catching, human traffickers who pack people into boats and race along the Florida coastline in an attempt to elude American enforcement.

Those who are fortunate enough to survive the escape to America - and not fortunate enough to elude enforcement - find themselves in the hands of a workforce that is often challenged by a language barrier.

As Allen looks to retain Hispanics in addition to Spanish speakers, statistics show that across government, Hispanics are joining the workforce in growing numbers. But they are underrepresented in the federal workplace, according to 2005 data published earlier this year by the Office of Personnel Management. Hispanics account for 7.4 percent of federal employees, but 12.6 percent of the general workforce, the figures show.

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