Portrait of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Baltimore Field Office Director Dorothy Herrera-Niles

Dorothy Herrera-Niles, director of enforcement and removal operations at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Baltimore, says she tries to be a role model for younger employees. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / June 1, 2014)

Latinos have for years made up one of the largest and fastest-growing groups in the country.

They have also long been one of the most underrepresented minority groups in the federal workplace.

Now a new effort is underway — at the highest level of federal hiring — to address that disparity.

"There is tremendous growth, as you know, in the Latino community, and we see more and more young people graduating from university, and I really want to tap into those numbers," said Katherine Archuleta, the director of the federal Office of Personnel Management.

"As we take a look at the people we serve — the communities we serve — the federal workplace needs to reflect, culturally and experience-wise, the talents that communities of every color can bring."

While Hispanics make up about 17 percent of the nation's population — the second-largest group, after non-Hispanic whites — they fill only about 6 percent of federal jobs, and only about 3 percent of senior federal executive positions, according to census data and a recent study by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

By comparison, non-Hispanic whites make up about 63 percent of the U.S. population, about 67 percent of the federal workforce and about 81 percent of senior executives. African-Americans, the country's third-largest group after whites and Hispanics, make up just over 13 percent of the population, but fill more than 18 percent of federal jobs and nearly 11 percent of senior executive positions.

Archuleta, who spoke about diversity and reinvigorating an aging federal workforce last year during her Senate confirmation hearing, is the first Latina to head the OPM.

She has stopped short of setting specific goals for new Latino hires, but said there "is a lot of opportunity for us to make a difference."

She has advised staff to brainstorm on the problem, she said, and has been visiting Latino communities around the country.

The initiative could have major implications in Maryland, which is home to more than 300,000 federal workers and a Hispanic population that jumped 112 percent from about 231,000 in 2000 to nearly 489,000 in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.

Advocates say the initiative could also help address long-standing frustrations within the Hispanic community about low representation in the federal government.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda has given the federal government failing grades for Hispanic representation in federal agencies. Melody Gonzales, the presidential appointments program director for the Washington-based organization, said she has seen promises to boost hiring fall flat in the past.

Gonzales said the number of Latino federal employees hasn't increased by much since President Barack Obama's executive order three years ago to create a "coordinated government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce."

Obama has appointed several Latinos to top positions, which Gonzales said has buoyed hopes in the Hispanic population that change is indeed coming. Those appointees include Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, a former Maryland state official who was sworn in last year, and Hilda Solis, his predecessor.

Scarlet Trejos, 43, of Owings Mills, came to the United States 15 years ago from Costa Rica. A U.S. citizen, she is a Navy veteran, a mother of three and a senior at the University of Baltimore, where she is earning a bachelor's degree in jurisprudence.

Trejos plans to apply for federal jobs upon graduation, she said, but is fearful she will never win one. She said cultural barriers have made past attempts at applying miserable, both for her and others she knows in the Hispanic community.

"My friends, they say, 'Why do you even want to look into that? That will never happen. It's not even worth it to waste your time applying,'" Trejos said. "And that's horrible to feel that way."

Bruce Anderson, 50, of Takoma Park has worked as a policy analyst with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs at the Department of Labor for 19 years. He has worked on affirmative action, discrimination and other diversity issues that arise for private-sector companies working with the federal government. He also has been involved for years with a group for Hispanic employees in his department.

Anderson said the best companies already realize that a diverse workforce will protect them from getting "caught flat-footed five years from now when the markets change." He said the government should understand that, too.