Growing up and attending public schools in Southern California, Thomas Saenz perceived that Latino students were not given the same opportunities in school as white and Asian American students.
He experienced that inequality himself when he skipped eighth grade and was enrolling in high school. At the time of enrollment, a high school counselor advised him and his parents that he shouldn’t take the high-level algebra class the school offered, because the class would be too difficult for him. But Saenz’s mother refused to leave until the counselor agreed to enroll Saenz in the algebra class.
Saenz excelled in the class and went on to attend Yale University. Now, at age 45, he is a nationally recognized civil rights attorney and head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s leading Latino civil rights organization.
Saenz is also well-respected among Latino leaders, including labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. She once described Saenz as “a champion for civil rights and social justice.”
Thomas Saenz finds motivation to fight for civil rights
It was the inequality that Latino students faced in public schools and the Latino education gap—as well as the lack of commitment on the part of the school administration to address those issues—that motivated Saenz to become involved in fighting for civil rights and social justice.
“It became clear to me that these were broader problems across the country, and I wanted to make change in that,” he told VOXXI.
Saenz thought the best way to bring about change in the school system was by earning a law degree and becoming a civil rights lawyer. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1987 and went on to earn his law degree from Yale Law School in 1991.
He also found motivation from his parents. His father, who retired from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power where he spliced cable, taught him about workers’ rights. When Saenz was about 6 years old, he witnessed his father leading a strike for workers’ rights against his employer.
Saenz’s mother retired after being a school district secretary for many years. Through her, Saenz learned about the importance of education and of standing up for his rights and against discrimination.
Both of his parents never earned four-year college degrees. They did, however, attend community college as adults and each earned a two-year college degree, setting the example for Saenz and his older brother to follow suit.
Like many Mexican Americans, Saenz’s family is of multiple and differing generations in the United States. His maternal grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico, in the late 1920s. She met and married his maternal grandfather, who was an immigrant from Galicia, Spain, in a mining town in Arizona.
Saenz’s paternal grandmother, who was born in Los Angeles, was Mexican and is believed to have been living in southern California since it was part of Mexico. His paternal grandfather, who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, lived in New Mexico and northern Mexico.
Thomas Saenz challenges laws violating civil rights of Latinos
After earning his law degree, Saenz began clerking for judges at a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He did that until 1993 when he began working for MALDEF as a civil rights attorney. During his 12-year tenure with MALDEF, he served as lead counsel in several civil rights cases that involved issues such as education equality, employment discrimination, immigrants’ rights and voting rights.
In 2005, Saenz left MALDEF to join Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s executive team. As the mayor’s lead counsel, Saenz defended in court legislation that gave Villaraigosa some control over the Los Angeles Unified School District in an attempt to ensure a quality education for all students in that district.
He left the mayor’s office in 2009 to become the president and general counsel of MALDEF.
Throughout his career, Saenz has led numerous civil rights cases. He told VOXXI the court challenge to California’s Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to make undocumented immigrants ineligible for public benefits, stands out from all the cases he has been involved with.
“It played a major role in my career development as a civil rights lawyer both because of the importance of the issue and because of the important role I got to play in the case even as a younger lawyer,” he said.
Saenz added that the issues that were dealt with during the court challenge against Proposition 187 are “very contemporary today.” To support his claim, he pointed to Arizona’s SB 1070, a state law requiring local authorities to question the immigration status of those they suspect are not authorized to be in the country. Both legislations, he argued, target the Latino community.
He also said such laws are backed by elected officials who “choose to exploit what they perceive as a fear in the community about the growth of the Latino community.”
“When some political leaders perceive that in the community, they exploit it by enacting laws that get them short-term boosts politically even at the cost of human relations, civil rights and all the rest of the costs that are involved in these kinds of laws,” Saenz told VOXXI.
Thomas Saenz says passing immigration reform won’t be easy
Many civil rights leaders agree that the birth of SB 1070 in 2010 motivated state lawmakers in other states to adopt similar laws. They also contend that the law is what fueled an extremist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that has polarized the conversation on immigration in recent years.
But Saenz said the conversation on immigration at a national level could be starting to shift in a positive direction and in favor of an immigration reform. He attributed the shift to the Latino voter turnout in November’s elections.
Passing an immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship, however, won’t be easy. Saenz said it will take leadership from Latino Republicans, including newly-elected U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, to pass an immigration reform.
“They have a task that is not easy, which is to convince their party to allow divergent views about immigration to be expressed publicly and to be championed and to be pursued through the vote,” Saenz told VOXXI about both congressmen. “That’s critical to get the votes necessary in this Congress for immigration reform.”
Thomas Saenz says more challenges still head for Latinos
Looking into the future, Saenz foresees that Latinos will continue to face several challenges, including laws that seek to suppress the Latino vote. One of the biggest challenges he predicts for Latinos is the same challenge that encouraged him to become a civil rights attorney: The Latino education gap.
“We have to address that at a national level and not just at the state and local level where the efforts so far have been sporadic and of widely varying success,” he said. “We have to make it a national priority to assure that the education gap is reduced and eliminated. That’s essential to the future of this country.”