Latino Group Holds Its Own State Of The Union

Last week, the Latino civil rights organization MALDEF (The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) held its third annual Latino State of the Union. From immigration to redistricting, pressing issues where discussed. Host Michel Martin speaks with MALDEF president Tom Saenz for more, and to see what MALDEF is looking to hear in President Obama's first State of the Union address from President Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we talk to a writer who has been following the Tea Party Movement. He explains how they got started and why they matter now.

But first, the president isnt the only one who wants to weigh in on the State of the Union. Around this time of year, a number of groups use this opportunity to weigh in on the conditions affecting the people they represent.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund known as MALDEF is one of them. They recently hosted their third annual roundtable on law policy and civil rights, which they call a Latino state of the union.

Were joined now by MALDEF president and general counsel Tom Saenz to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you for joining us. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. THOMAS A. SAENZ (President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund): Thank you. Good to talk to you again.

MARTIN: Congressman Xavier Becerra gave the opening remarks at the event. And he had this to say about the future of Latinos in America.

Representative XAVIER BECERRA (Democrat, California): And so if you ask me in 2010, what is the State of the Union for Latinos? I say to you buy stock in Latinos.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) kind of unfortunate idea of like buying stock in human beings, Tom Saenz. But given that Latinos are among the hardest hit groups by the current recession, given that immigration reform seems to be going nowhere, which is a top priority for Latinos and for other people. Whats the source of Congressman Becerras optimism?

Mr. SAENZ: Well, I think that overall its the mixed picture for Latinos in the United States. I think the source of the optimism is that we had a community that is growing. We have a community that will, as a result of the 2010 Census, once again demonstrated how important it is to the future of United States. I think we have a community that despite the setbacks, very real setbacks, that this recession has dealt to so many, is a community that is progressing. Now that said we do have some concerns as we enter 2010.

MARTIN: So, one of those concerns has to be immigration reform. MALDEF board member Tom Reston talked about this in his remarks to the group. This is what he had to say.

Mr. TOM RESTON (Board Member, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund): The nation must turn its attention to the appalling chaos, which the government, in its distraction and trepidation, has allowed to develop in the shadows of our national life the immigration chaos.

MARTIN: Do you think it will, Tom Saenz, do you anticipate that the administration and the Congress will turn its attention to this issue this year?

Mr. SAENZ: Well, certainly everyone indicated that they expected to move comprehensive immigration reform this year. I think that there is reason to have concern the course of the health care reform debate.

And the developments in Massachusetts last week certainly raised concerns about what can or will occur. I think we need strong leadership from the Congress and from the president to ensure that we take up this issue thats been on our national agenda for over a decade. And that, as Mr. Reston indicated, has left millions of people toiling, working very hard to the progress of our country in the shadows without full legal protection. Its more than time for us to reform a flawed immigration system that is unequal, unfair and that results in the situation that we have in hand.

MARTIN: Given, though, as you mentioned, the loss of the Democratic super majority in Senate or the filibuster proof majority in the Senate and given the fact that the administrations optimistic priority health care seems to be kind of hanging in the balance, do you really have any sign that theres a will to take this issue up? I mean, and if they do, is there any sign of that theres a possibility for success here?

Mr. SAENZ: Well, I think its important to note that prior to 2010, admittedly, it is a much more highly partisan environment. Immigration reform is an issue that should have bipartisan participation and bipartisan support. Its an issue that affects the entire country, that affects the economy and industry. And so, there should be support from both sides of the aisle for comprehensive immigration reform.

Now, that said, it will take strong leadership and determination and courage to move this issue forward. But its more than times move on it, we have been debating the issue for over a decade.

MARTIN: Apart from immigration what other issues would you identify as being of particular concern to Latinos in the U.S. and how do you access the administrations performance in addressing those issues?

Mr. SAENZ: Well, I think number one, we are concerned about civil rights protections for everyone, including the Latino community. And on that particular issue, I think the administration has done well. Its a breath of fresh air from its predecessor administration. The indictment in December of the perpetrators of the hate crime against Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania is perhaps the best and most prominent example of (unintelligible) federal rule and civil rights enforcement.

Obviously, were pleased about the nomination and the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latino to sit on the United States Supreme Court. Thats a very significant achievement. At the same time, we are concerned about the course of health care reform. Health care reform is something that would benefit Latinos who are well-represented among those who are uninsured under our current system.

Were concerned about how the health care reform debate was diverted by the introduction of subsidiary unrelated concerns related to immigration and really perverted it in some ways to the proposals that flowed from that issue being introduced. In addition, we are interested in hearing what will the federal government be doing to reauthorize, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and invest in our future.

MARTIN: When you look overall at the prospects for 2010, just looking at this particular year ahead, how optimistic are you that you will see by the end of this year? If we have this conversation at the same time next year that youll be seeing progress in the things you care most about?

Mr. SAENZ: That theres a particularly difficult heavily partisan atmosphere in the nations capital right now, where it seems as though sometimes a 60-person supermajority is required though it was not in path. And that raises great concerns.

That said, at the end of 2010, I think the census will tell us of the growing importance of the Latino community, will tell us the growing importance of Latino children to the future of this nation. And it is my hope that that will unite us around an agenda that would pursue the interest of the Latino community and Latino children more vigorously in the nations capital.

MARTIN: That was Tom Saenz. He is the president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and he joined us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SAENZ: Sure.

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