New president/general counsel at Latino legal defense group

Thomas Saenz becomes is the new president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Thomas Saenz becomes is the new president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Over four decades the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has won notable civil rights cases on behalf of large groups of Latinos. A new president and general counsel takes over tomorrow. He’s the fourth person in as many years to hold that job. Observers say instability in the group’s top position has held back the nation’s oldest and most successful Latino legal defense group during a key moment in Latino civil rights. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The 5400 block of East Beverly Boulevard in East L.A. is a Latino lawyers’ row. Law firms with the names Castillo and Valverde advertise income tax and immigration services. At 5429 Beverly Boulevard the phone rings at least five times a day with arguably more serious calls, says lawyer Monica Guizar.

Monica Guizar: This case right here is one piece of a case on, immigrant worker in Bakersfield who was raped by her supervisor and then she complained, went to the police department and was fired.

Guzman-Lopez: The cases and their translated testimonies of discrimination form piles all over her office.

Guizar: This case here, this stack here, he’s a Latino from El Centro, California who worked at an immigration detention facility. And he was fired because he’s a member of the National Guard, that’s what he was told. And that’s a violation of California law and federal law.

Guzman-Lopez: Guizar’s one of dozens of civil rights lawyers in the Southland who files suits on behalf of individuals. University of Washington political science scholar Luis Fraga says that’s no match for the class action heft of cases the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund takes on.

Luis Fraga: As Latinos grow and move to different regions of the country, as issues of immigration continue to present challenges to the country and to Latino communities, and as the methods of denying opportunity to Latino communities become more sophisticated there’s an increased need for litigation organizations like this.

Guzman-Lopez: Fraga is married to a member of the MALDEF board of directors.

In 1970 MALDEF sued to end public school segregation in a small Texas town. Eleven years later, it sued Los Angeles County for drawing elective district lines that diluted Latino political representation. That led to Gloria Molina’s seat on the county board of supervisors. Four years ago MALDEF sued clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch on grounds that it employed Latino, African-American, and other employees of color only in the back room, not on the sales floor.

But Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials says MALDEF was absent during this decade’s Latino immigrant marches and the debate over immigration reform.

Arturo Vargas: We could have had a larger role for MALDEF, a greater voice for MALDEF, for example in Washington, D.C. during all the comprehensive immigrant reform debates.

Guzman-Lopez: MALDEF’s head of litigation disagrees. She notes the organization’s successful arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a Texas redistricting case a few years ago, and its testimony in the nation’s capital in favor of immigration reform.

Vargas and other MALDEF observers say a revolving door of general counsels since the departure of longtime leader Antonia Hernandez five years ago has led to instability. Hernandez, who now leads the California Community Foundation, a KPCC funder, doesn’t disagree. She says her successors at MALDEF were the wrong fit.

Antonia Hernandez: It was a difficult transition for MALDEF. And I think to a large degree it was based on not truly understanding what it would take, and what it takes to run an institution.

Guzman-Lopez: Hernandez says funders don’t like instability. MALDEF generated close to $5 million in public support six years ago. The non-profit took in a million-and-a-half less than that last year. It’s had to lay off lawyers and close offices in Sacramento, Houston, and Atlanta. Antonia Hernandez says the key to MALDEF’s future is to position a brainy civil rights litigator at the top, so the organization can fulfill its reputation as “the law firm for the Latino community.”

John Eastman: I think it’s become more the law firm for the illegal immigrant community.

Guzman-Lopez: Chapman University constitutional law scholar John Eastman echoes some of the criticism MALDEF’s faced from some in the legal community and from media figures like CNN television anchor Lou Dobbs.

Eastman: I think ultimately they’re defining success by completely breaking down the distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

Guzman-Lopez: Eastman expects MALDEF’s new general counsel to advocate even more for illegal immigrants. That new general counsel, veteran civil rights litigator Thomas Saenz, doesn’t deny it. More on him tomorrow.