Founded in 1968 with a $2.2 million seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) describes itself as “the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization.” Its mission is to “promot[e] social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access.” The intended beneficiaries of these efforts are Latinos, whom MALDEF seeks to “bring … into the mainstream of American political and socio-economic life.”
MALDEF was the brainchild of Latino activist and lawyer Peter Tijerina, a member of the San Antonio, Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In the early 1960s, Tijerina grew disaffected with LULAC's assimilationist approach to immigration issues. Instead, he was inspired by the example of radical Latino activists who were coming to prominence during the cultural ferment of that decade. Preaching about “Brown Power” and “Chicano Power,” they urged their fellow Latinos to embrace their ethnic identity, to reject assimilation, and to confront America’s supposedly racist and oppressive system as well as their ethnic counterparts who betrayed the cause through assimilation. For example, Tijerina was galvanized by the example of Latino militant Reies Tijerina (no relation), a New Mexico-based preacher who led a series of violent actions in the 1960s to occupy land that he claimed rightfully belonged to Mexico but had been stolen by “Anglo” ranchers and lawyers.
Seeking to emulate that model, Peter Tijerina conceived the idea for a more confrontational alternative to LULAC. In 1967 he approached the Ford Foundation to ask for support in setting up a new Chicano rights organization. It was, on the face of it, an unusual appeal. Despite an often-difficult immigrant experience, Hispanics in the United States had never been subjected to the kind of systemic racism suffered by African Americans. While Mexican schoolchildren were often segregated from whites in states like Texas and California, such segregation was not sanctioned by law; Jim Crow laws did not apply to Mexican Americans. Black leaders consequently took issue with the new Latino activists’ claims that the plight of Mexicans demanded the intervention of a civil rights organization.
Nevertheless, the Ford Foundation’s leadership embraced Tijerina’s request, accepted his claims, and officially came to view Mexicans in America as an oppressed minority in need of a new advocacy group to defend them. Ford president McGeorge Bundy formulated the foundation’s new radical view of the Mexican-American community—and by implication of America itself—in a statement equating the situation of Mexican Americans with that of former black slaves who had suffered more than a half century of legal segregation in the South and were systematically discriminated against across the country: “In terms of the legal enforcement of rights, American citizens of Mexican descent are now where the Negro community was a quarter-century ago.” On this premise, the Ford Foundation in 1968 granted nearly $2.2 million (to be dispensed over a five-year period) to Tijerina’s organization, MALDEF.
During the first three decades of MALDEF’s existence, the Ford Foundation supplied almost all of the group's funding—a total of more than $25 million. Ford’s support also provided the radical MALDEF with a mainstream imprimatur, thereby helping the organization draw additional millions from foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller and from corporations like Anheuser-Bush, Coca Cola, AT&T and Verizon, among many others. As a result, MALDEF, which had started as a fringe civil-rights group (in San Antonio) with no national resonance, became a nationally influential advocacy organization with regional offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, and Washington, DC; a satellite office in Sacramento; and program offices in Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Houston. Today MALDEF has net assets of approximately $6.8 million, an annual budget of $4.2 million, and a staff of 75 (including 22 attorneys).
Even more notable than its size is what MALDEF—with Ford's backing—has been able to accomplish. Much of the organization's policy agenda has been passed into law—whether in the form of federally funded bilingual education programs, in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants, the granting of driver's licenses regardless of immigration status, or the establishment of “sanctuary cities.” And because of the group's ever-growing stature in the pantheon of American immigration groups, MALDEF officials have been called to testify at Congressional hearings dozens of times since the 1970s.
Just as significantly, MALDEF has played a major role in: (a) radically transforming the immigration debate in America, fostering what has become the widespread acceptance of direct attacks on the very idea of national sovereignty; (b) the de facto elimination of any requirement for citizenship rights; and (c) the casual dismissal of all critics as “anti-immigrant” nativists, racists, and “McCarthyites.” For example:
MALDEF co-founder Mario Obledo said in 1998: “California is going to be a Hispanic state and anyone who doesn’t like it should leave. They should go back to Europe.”
In 2008, MALDEF joined the George Soros-funded Media Matters and Center for American Progress in supporting the National Council of La Raza's “We Can Stop the Hate” campaign, which was designed to silence critics who raised alarms about mass illegal immigration into the United States and who opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants. Disparaging those critics as “hate groups, nativists, and vigilantes,” the campaign made no attempt to answer their substantive concerns—for instance, the presence of an estimated 12-20 million illegal immigrants in the country; the budget-breaking economic burdens placed on social services and education provided by municipalities and states; the disproportionate crime and gang activity associated with illegal immigrants; or the fact that illegal immigration is perceived by Hispanic radicals as a way to reclaim the Southwestern United States for Mexico. (For an overview of this “reconquista” agenda, click here.)
MALDEF contends that those who wish to make English the official language of the United States are “motivated by racism and anti-immigrant sentiments”; that those who favor sanctions against employers reliant on illegal labor, seek to discriminate against “brown-skinned people”; that “fear and prejudice” is chiefly what animates those who oppose the distribution of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants; and that people who call for the enforcement of immigration laws are acting out of “racism and xenophobia.”
In the process of pushing (along with allied organizations such as the National Council of La Raza) the mainstream American debate on immigration to the left, MALDEF has helped to radicalize Hispanic groups that at one time were distinguished by their political moderation. A prime example is LULAC, whose traditional approaches to immigration and citizenship had offended radicals like Peter Tijerina and inspired them to create MALDEF. Whereas LULAC and other liberal groups had once touted the virtues of patriotism, legal immigration, and cultural assimilation, by the 1980s that view of citizenship had become the province of so-called “reactionaries.” Echoing the MALDEF/LaRaza rhetoric of Chicano separatism, LULAC officials now stridently declared, “We cannot assimilate! We will not assimilate!”
Through its advocacy campaigns, MALDEF has radically distorted the concept of citizenship rights, transforming them into “human rights” as though the establishment of such rights was not contingent upon the existence of a nation-state and polity committed to them. These rights, once reserved for actual citizens and legal residents, are today widely presumed to apply to also those in the U.S. illegally with no commitment to preserving them. As former MALDEF president Vilma Martinez has said, “Our definition of Mexican-American has expanded to encompass not only the citizen, but also the permanent resident alien, and the undocumented alien.”
Although MADLEF professes a commitment to the expansion of opportunities for Latinos, that commitment wavers observably whenever certain Latinos deviate, even if only hypothetically, from the organization’s uncompromising support for unrestricted immigration. Thus, in 2001 and in subsequent years as well, MALDEF declared against the nomination of Miguel Estrada, a Honduran immigrant, to the Washington, DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Among its objections, MALDEF cited the possibility that Estrada might fail to “protect the labor and employment rights” of “undocumented workers.” In January 2005, MALDEF similarly opposed the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General, expressing concern that he might allow states to enforce federal immigration laws.
MALDEF's Top Priorities Today
MALDEF's chief social and political concerns today are the following:
Immigration: MALDEF's Truth in Immigration campaign asserts that: “Political pundits, candidates for elected office, media networks, anti-immigrant organizations, and hate groups consistently disseminate negative myths about [Latino] immigrants that poison the atmosphere for immigrants and all Americans.” These “dehumanizing anti-immigrant stereotypes,” says MALDEF, “generate increased bigotry and violence.”
Another MALDEF initiative, titled Immigrant Integration, calls for “investments” of taxpayer dollars “to train and educate English language learners and assist [them in] transition into their new communities.” To this end, MALDEF has led a coalition of more than 200 local and national organizations “in support of legislation that invests in English language acquisition opportunities for adults and children; creates incentives for businesses to educate their workers and be a part of the integration of immigrants; and provides resources to help communities bring together key stakeholders.”
Trumpeting the economic contributions of illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, MALDEF maintains that America’s “failed immigration policy … has resulted in a complete lack of legal recognition of millions of immigrants who are the backbone of the U.S. economy … doing the jobs that U.S. citizens and residents do not want.” To address this problem, MALDEF has exhorted Congress to “consider legalization” for all “undocumented persons living and working here in the U.S.”
In 1994 MALDEF strongly opposed California's Proposition 187—a referendum that would have denied government-funded education, health care and social services to illegal immigrants in that state—which was passed with the support of 59% of California voters. But following its passage, Prop 187 was immediately subjected to legal challenges, and a district court overturned the new law by judicial fiat. When the state of California initiated an appeal of that decision, MALDEF put a great deal of legal and political pressure on then-governor Gray Davis, eventually forcing the state to drop the appeal. Following that resolution, MALDEF openly trumpeted the large role it had played in winning “this victory of basic human and civil rights.”
MALDEF has sought not only “to expand access to driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status,” but also to gain official U.S. acceptance of Matricula Consular cards—the fraud-prone ID cards issued by the Mexican government—which are frequently used by illegal immigrants as a substitute for American identification documents. A CNS News report states: “The Matricula Consular has been under scrutiny by various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on the ground that the authenticity of the documents used to obtain the Matricula cannot be accurately verified.”
MALDEF steadfastly opposes the use of local and state police personnel to enforce federal immigration law, citing concerns about racial profiling and the disparity of enforcement against Mexican illegals. “The reason that we don’t want state and local police involved in immigration enforcement … it’s very, very bad for public safety,” said former MALDEF immigration-rights attorney Katherine Culliton. “If immigrants are afraid that they may get deported, they don’t report crimes. We know of cases of domestic violence where people don’t call. The overwhelming problem is that when immigrants don’t report crimes because they are afraid, then we’re all a lot less safe.”
When the Arizona legislature in 2010 passed SB 1070, a law making illegal immigration a state crime and giving state police broader powers to detain illegal immigrants when they were stopped for an unrelated infraction, MALDEF pronounced the law “unacceptable.” Critics who followed MALDEF's lead similarly lambasted SB 1070 as intolerant and “draconian” in its supposed subversion of rights. Almost without exception, the national Democratic Party adhered to the MALDEF line, with Colorado Congressman Jared Polis going so far as to declare that the law was “reminiscent” of Nazi Germany and likening Arizona to a “police state.” The spirit of these charges was echoed by the Obama administration, which went on the warpath against the Arizona law. The President himself claimed that SB 1070 would “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans,” while the Justice Department launched a lawsuit to prevent the law from going into effect. In July 2010, a federal judge bowed to MALDEF’s demands and blocked key provisions of the law.
In keeping with its campaign against local enforcement of federal immigration laws, MALDEF has promoted “sanctuary city” policies that prevent police from checking the immigration status of criminals, verifying resident status in the workplace, or securing the nation’s borders. MALDEF’s opposition to border-enforcement efforts is so effective that it routinely trumps national security. For example:
In 1994, MALDEF condemned Operation Gatekeeper, a U.S. government program intended to restore integrity to a portion of the California-Mexico border, across which many thousands of illegal aliens were streaming each year. Condemning this program for callously “diverting” illegal border-crossers “from California to the harsh and dangerous Arizona desert,” MALDEF charged that Americanswho opposed unrestricted immigration were motivated largely by “racism and xenophobia.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, MALDEF spearheaded a protest campaign against Operation Tarmac, a federal crackdown on illegal aliens working in secure sections of the nation’s airports. According to MALDEF, such law-enforcement efforts amounted to “actions that harm the civil rights of Latinos rather than protect them.”
MALDEF was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress to oppose Patriot Act II on grounds that it contained “a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers … that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights.”
During approximately the same time period, MALDEF endorsed the goals of the California-based Coalition for Civil Liberties, which tried to influence city councils nationwide to pass resolutions of noncompliance with the provisions of the Patriot Act.
In 2004, MALDEF emerged as a leading champion of the Civil Liberties Restoration Act, which, under the rubric of promoting “our nation’s safety,” sought to impede the ability of federal authorities as well as state and local law agencies to enforce immigration laws.
Hate Crimes: Asserting that “hate crimes against Latinos have risen 40%” in recent times, MALDEF laments that this “national epidemic” and “wave of hatred” is “spurred each day by hate speech, distortion of facts, and anti-immigrant sentiment expressed on cable shows, local radio shows and across the airwaves.” To counter those voices, MALDEF exhorts Congress to pass national legislation such as the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act.”
Economic Recovery: In 2009, MALDEF pledged to “work with partners in Congress and the [newly installed] Obama Administration to ensure that full economic recovery reaches the Latino community.” Toward that end, the organization staunchly supported the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, or stimulus bill, which Obama signed into law in 2009. In fact, MALDEF and the National Council of La Raza both helped the Obama Administration and Congress to draft that legislation, always with an eye toward “ensur[ing] that the concerns of Latino workers and families were addressed.” Among the bill's key provisions, said MALDEF, were a variety of taxpayer-funded programs that would be “helpful to Latino families,” such as “an expanded Make Work Pay credit that assists low income workers”; “the expansion and modernization of unemployment insurance”; “significant resources for state stabilization funds, [to] ensure that critical state programs and benefits remain available”; and “large investments in job training and education.” MALDEF lauded, in particular, House Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) for their efforts to include pro-Latino provisions in the stimulus bill.
Voting Rights: MALDEF’s top public-policy priority is to help Latinos and other “historically disenfranchised populations” gain “unimpeded access to the polls, regardless of national origin or language ability”; to “enhance Latino influence in the political process” by putting more ballots into their hands. However, MALDEF unequivocally opposes Voter ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements for those voters. In 2006, for instance, the organization filed a lawsuit challenging an Arizona law—passed by ballot initiative two years earlier—that required voters to prove their citizenship before casting their ballots.
MALDEF also opposes the reconfiguration of voting districts in a manner that would “dilut[e] the votes of hundreds of thousands of Latinos.” In other words, it favors the creation and retention of districts wherein Latinos constitute a numerical majority or a plurality, thereby enabling Latinos as a distinct demographic bloc to elect whichever congressional representatives they want.
MALDEF equates English-language ballots with the racist literacy tests that were once used to disenfranchise black voters in the American South. This perspective dates back to the early 1970s, when MALDEF filed (and won) a voting rights lawsuit on behalf of Puerto Ricans living in New York. The suit argued that English literacy tests discriminated against Puerto Ricans as a class of people. The courts agreed, allowing MALDEF to establish the radical legal precedent that holding elections in English—the official language of the United States—was an act of oppression that disenfranchised Hispanic voters. By 1975, groups like MALDEF were successfully campaigning to amend the 1965 Voting Rights Act and forcing jurisdictions with significant numbers of Hispanic residents to provide voting materials in Spanish. Instead of Hispanics integrating into American culture, as had been the traditional approach, they were now to be granted special treatment on the basis of their ethnicity—a key pillar of the multicultural agenda.
Fair Employment Practices: MALDEF contends that “discrimination continues to affect Latino workers at all levels of the economy,” in the form of “a hostile work environment”; “the denial of promotions”; “being forced to work unpaid 'overtime'”; having “limited ... opportunities for advancement”; and being “paid at substantially lower rates than non-Latino workers.”
As a partial remedy for the aforementioned problems, MALDEF supports affirmative action in hiring and promotion practices, and advocates the “consideration of race and gender in the awarding of public contracts.”
By contrast, MALDEF opposes the Electronic Employment Verification System (E-Verify), the Social Security Administration’s means of sending “No-Match” letters to business owners whose employees’ names and corresponding Social Security Numbers do not match the SSA's records.
Education: Education has long been a leading conncern of MALDEF. In the 1980s, for instance, the organization threw its legal clout behind the claims of illegal immigrants in Texas, who demanded a right to a free education at the taxpayers’ expense. In a successful lawsuit, MALDEF argued that denying the plaintiffs this “right” was unconstitutional.
MALDEF has also brought suit against public colleges and universities, charging that they were wrongly denying admission to illegal immigrants due to their “perceived immigration status.” In a corollary campaign, MALDEF has sued to compel state universities to allow illegal-immigrant students who reside in-state, to pay the same discounted tuition rates as their in-state legal counterparts.
MALDEF has repeatedly filed lawsuits aimed at forcing states to guarantee the availability of bilingual education in public schools, and has sought to suppress successful ballot initiatives—such as California Proposition 227 and Arizona’s Proposition 203—that would ban bilingual education programs which have long proven to be ineffectual. After California voters passed Prop 227 in 1998, for example, MALDEF joined the ACLU in filing for a temporary restraining order to keep the state’s largest school district from implementing the will of the voters.
MALDEF has also waged campaigns against the use of standardized tests to evaluate student achievement and abilities. In the late 1990s, for instance, the organization filed a class action suit against Texas to prevent that state’s schools from conditioning a high-school diploma on a student’s ability to pass a basic academic achievement test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Attorneys for MALDEF argued, unsuccessfully, that because some students, including a quarter of Hispanic students, failed the test, it was “unfair to all students,” and to “minority students” in particular.
The same mindset has long guided MALDEF's activism in the realm of higher education as well. Indeed, the organization has commonly sought, by means of lawsuits and legislative proposals, to prevent universities from factoring standardized test scores into their admissions decisions. In 2004, for example, MALDEF filed suit against California State University, claiming that the school was “misus[ing] standardized test scores” and was thereby creating an admissions system that was “dysfunctional and unfair” to minority students. In support of that accusation, MALDEF adduced the fact that the university “attaches great weight to an applicant’s SAT or ACT score.”
One of MALDEF's top priorities is to “ensure that students have equal access to educational opportunities regardless of income, nationality, or language skills.” Toward that end, the organization seeks to enforce compliance with “desegregation” decrees in various cities across the United States. Typically, such decrees are mandates for the reassignment and transportation of students to different schools, so as to change the racial makeup of the student bodies.
Leadership: Since 1989, MALDEF’s Parent School Partnership Program “has empowered parents and community leaders throughout the nation to become change agents in their communities” and to “become effective advocates in improving their children’s educational attainment.” In addition, MALDEF's Law School Scholarship Program awards scholarships to several students each year based on their “past achievement,” “potential for achievement,” “financial need,” and “commitment to serve the Latino community through law.”