From the archive: Alexander Acosta, the FIU law dean and the former U.S. attorney from Miami, was tapped Thursday to lead the U.S. Labor Department. Here is a June 2004 story from the Miami Herald archives about Acosta, when he led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and targeted human trafficking.
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.
Never miss a local story.
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."