A New Day For Latino Civil Rights

Host Michel Martin interviews Thomas Saenz who is the new president of one of the oldest Latino civil rights organizations, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And now we move to a news maker interview with a new leader of another major civil rights organization. Thomas Saenz has just been named president in general council of the Mexican American Legal Defense And Educational Fund or MALDEF. Most recently he served as counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But he's probably best known for his legal work battling the implementation of California's proposition 187, which called for denying illegal immigrants access to publicly funded education, health care and social services.

A federal judge later ruled that voter approved measure unconstitutional. And Mr. Saenz joins us now from Austin, Texas. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS SAENZ: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Are congratulation in order or perhaps a small dose of condolences, all the responsibilities you will have?

SAENZ: Probably a mixture of both but I'm certainly looking forward to this opportunity and challenge. There is a great, great need still in this country for organizations like MALDEF that work to promote the civil rights of our minority communities.

MARTIN: Earlier in our conversation, we're talking about the NAACP's recently concluded convention, also this is the centennial of that organization. The same question people ask of them - you have people on the inside now. You have people in unprecedented positions of influence. So, then the question becomes, why then is there still a need for outside advocates? What's the next step? What is the role now?

SAENZ: Well, I think the purpose is not just to gain access, but also to hold our leadership accountable. Unfortunately, once folks end up in power, they are under inordinate pressures from all sides. And sometimes don't necessarily from their inside perspective know what's required or what's best for the community and it's important that there are advocates on the outside who can hold them accountable, can give them information and can also give them a little bit of pressure when it's appropriate.

I also think it's easy to assume that access to positions of power by a few somehow means that we have rooted out systems that are deeply ingrained in our history, that still continue to adopt policies that by intention or certainly by effect have a discriminatory impact on communities that historically have faced discrimination in our society.

MARTIN: If you don't mind looking over your resume, Yale undergrad, Yale law school, presumably you could have had your pick of positions in the legal world. I'm sure that you had offers from many, many places but you've been working in this area for quite a long time. I mean, you were a staff attorney at MALDEF, you worked your way up there, you worked there for many years. You were lead counsel there for 12 years. What is it about this work that so engages you?

SAENZ: I went to law school to do this kind of work. Part of what inspired me to go to law school was my own reading about the NAACP, legal defense fund, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston and the others who led the fight from the legal side for civil rights progress in this country. And then we have our own legal heroes from the ranks of MALDEF and others. And I tell lots of prospective law students that I meet with that law school can sometimes be very difficult.

You've got to have something that's going to pull you through three years of difficulty. For some folks that's the prospect of making lots of money. For me, it was the ability to go out and do civil rights work and have the kind of impact that historically civil rights lawyers have had in changing this country and improving it.

MARTIN: What do you think of the major challenges facing MALDEF right now? What do you consider your highest priorities?

SAENZ: I think the priorities for the Latino community are comprehensive immigration reform that includes a national policy on immigrant integration and I think MALDEF needs to be leading that fight. Also, we have redistricting just around the corner in 2011, following our census in 2010. There will be a redrawing, as you know, of the districts in every state, both congressional districts and state legislative districts.

And the growth of the Latino population throughout the country means that there will be opportunities that we have to take advantage of to create greater opportunities to elect representatives from the Latino community and with the concerns of the Latino community in mind. And finally, I think education has simply always been a critical issue. The Latino population is a younger population. And education and educational opportunity is really critical to the future ability of the Latino community to contribute to the progress of our country.

MARTIN: Speaking of immigration reform, there were reports that you had been approached by the Obama administration, and even tentatively offered the job of heading the civil rights division in the Department of Justice, which is, as you know, a very critical position. It has been hotly contested in some past administrations. Is this true?

SAENZ: Yes, I was in discussion with the administration about serving as a (unintelligible) attorney general for civil rights, and had a tentative offer and was going through vetting when the administration decided to go in another direction.

MARTIN: Why do you think they did? Did they ever explain that?

SAENZ: Sure. They were concerned about how my past professional activities might be misconstrued in the confirmation process. And certainly we've seen over these last several months that there is plenty of misconstruing, both intentional and unintentional, that goes on in a confirmation process. We're seeing it right now with future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

MARTIN: But is the - is the issue here that simply your advocacy for specific immigration measures or for anti-discrimination measures makes you untenable? Is that what you read from that? And do you think that's fair?

SAENZ: Well, I think that we need to carefully review our confirmation process. It's become unduly politicized, particularly for judges who have life tenure, but even for the kind of temp job that I was seeking to head the civil rights division for the Obama administration. There is a process now that tends to weed out not just folks who for various reasons may not be appropriate but also folks who are imminently appropriate, but whose activities can be misconstrued and mischaracterized in a highly politicized confirmation process.

And I think that that is a concern for the country at large. We need to do something to change a process that can be a deterrent, because it is so aggressively politicized.

MARTIN: Are you disappointed?

SAENZ: But I understand those decisions.

MARTIN: Are you disappointed?

SAENZ: Certainly I think there were - I was interested in that job because I think there are great opportunities with the Obama administration to more aggressively enforce civil rights laws across this country. I think that opportunity is still there and I am fully confident the administration will take that opportunity and run with it, and I wanted to be a part of that. So yes, I was disappointed.

MARTIN: Finally, how will you know if you've succeeded in this position?

SAENZ: I think I'll know that we've succeeded at MALDEF when we have equal educational opportunity across the country; when who a child's parents are does not determine what that child's future is going to be. We will have succeeded when we have legislators and city councils, and county boards of supervisors, and a judicial bench that reflect the folks who come before them.

We will have succeeded when we have a nation whose governance, in everything that it does, really epitomizes the veracity of the principles that have been so long a part of our legal fabric. And given what I've just described, I don't know if I will ever know whether we've succeeded.

MARTIN: Thomas Saenz is the new president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was just named to this post this week. And he joined us from NPR member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Mr. Saenz, thank you so much for joining us.

SAENZ: Thank you, Michel.

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