The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is a left-wing litigation and advocacy group focused on immigration, election procedure, and Census and demographic interest issues. Founded in the late 1960s with extensive financial support from the left-wing Ford Foundation which continues through the present day, MALDEF is notable for its involvement in the creation of the “Hispanic/Latino” ethnic category in Census enumeration and its advocacy for expanded immigration. In addition to the Ford Foundation, MALDEF receives substantial support from the corporate foundation of Anheuser-Busch and liberal foundations including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, and the California Endowment.
MALDEF has close ties to Democratic politicians, with a number of MALDEF alumni taking senior roles or being nominated to high-level positions in Democratic administrations at the federal, state, and local levels. During the Obama administration, it was alleged that the Justice Department preferentially hired attorneys for its voting section from left-aligned ideological groups including MALDEF.
The organization has staked out a position on the far end of the expansionist side of the immigration debate. A MALDEF co-founder who would later serve in the cabinet of California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), Mario Obledo, made controversial statements in a telephone interview later relayed by National Public Radio:
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You also made the statement that California is going to become a Hispanic state and if anyone doesn’t like it they should leave. Did you say that?
OBLEDO: I did. They ought to go back to Europe.
During the debate over the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, MALDEF was criticized by immigrants and other advocacy groups for taking an uncompromising position and opposing passage of the bill, which normalized the status of an estimated 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants, because the legislation included border security and employment verification measures. The fanatical positioning reportedly cost MALDEF influence over federal legislation.
MALDEF continues to operate in the legal arena and lobby Congress. The organization lobbied against the nomination of Jeff Sessions, a prominent immigration restrictionist, to serve as Attorney General; sued to protect the privileges of cities which do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities; and opposed efforts by the Trump administration to ask about the citizenship status of Census respondents.
In the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation—then the largest private foundation in the United States—began to shift focus from direct aid to individual needs toward grantmaking toward liberal public policy activities under the direction of its then-president, McGeorge Bundy, a former aide to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. From 1966 through 1969, the Ford Foundation established a number of public-interest litigation organizations, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Women’s Law Center, and Earthjustice. In 1967, Ford Foundation support established the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, better known as MALDEF.
Pedro Tijerina, a Texas attorney, secured a $2.2 million contribution from the Ford Foundation and assistance from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to create a nonprofit litigation outfit focusing on the interests of Mexican Americans, which would become MALDEF. Tijerina brought on Mario Obledo to serve as general counsel of the new MALDEF. The organization handled a number of civil rights cases, including efforts to secure Mexican-American representation on civil and criminal juries and expand public accommodation nondiscrimination protections to Mexican Americans.
Voting Policy Activism
Expansion of Voting Rights Act to Hispanics
MALDEF led efforts to extend the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) which guaranteed African American voting rights to Spanish-speaking Americans; in 1975, Congress passed legislation to that effect. Since the expansion of the VRA, MALDEF has led litigation against local election procedures, challenging the election of city councils by citywide races rather than districts gerrymandered to elect a councilor of a particular ethnicity. MALDEF lobbying also secured provisions in the amended VRA which required the issuance of ballot papers in languages other than English in certain counties.
Opposition to California Districting Reform
MALDEF has opposed efforts in California which placed responsibility for drawing legislative and Congressional districts in the hands of a bipartisan commission. In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) proposed a ballot measure which would have placed redistricting in the hands of a panel of former state judges; MALDEF sued to block the proposal.
After the 2005 proposal failed, a 2008 ballot measure opposed by MALDEF — analysts suspected that it and other powerful California influence groups feared redistricting would weaken institutional power— instituted a bipartisan redistricting commission for state legislative districts. After a 2010 measure extended its remit to draw districts for U.S. Congress, MALDEF threatened to challenge the ensuing district lines for not gerrymandering a sufficient number of liberal-Hispanic-controlled districts.
MALDEF has opposed efforts to apportion state legislative districts based on the voter population rather than the general population, which includes citizens ineligible to vote due to age or felony conviction and non-citizens categorically ineligible to vote. In response to a 2015 challenge to Texas’s practice of apportionment based on general population, MALDEF characterized the challengers as “purveyors of apartheid” in a statement.
People associated with MALDEF have endorsed granting voting privileges to noncitizens in a private capacity. In 2003, former MALDEF president and general counsel Joaquin Avila published a legal article calling for an amendment to the California state constitution granting non-citizens voting privileges in local elections.
MALDEF has been a staunch advocate for liberal immigration policies since its creation. The group’s radical opposition to concessions on border security reportedly threatened compromises negotiated to pass the 1986 immigration reform bill, reportedly costing MALDEF future legislative influence. The group continues active litigation efforts against efforts to enforce immigration laws, and it lobbied the federal government against the appointment of immigration restrictionist Jeff Sessions to serve as United States Attorney General.
Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants
MALDEF is one of the leading advocates for the granting of legal status to remain in the country to illegally present immigrants. MALDEF reportedly faced criticism from pro-immigration advocates in the late 1980s for risking an effort to legalize a number of illegal immigrants in exchange for moderate concessions on enforcement by opposing legislation which would later become the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
Since the 1980s, MALDEF has filed a number of lawsuits to secure legal status for illegal immigrants. In 2016, MALDEF general counsel Thomas Saenz argued before the Supreme Court in defense of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) executive actions, which intended to grant legal status to the illegal immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (DAPA was enjoined by federal courts before taking effect and rescinded by the Trump administration).
In 2018, MALDEF sued Procter and Gamble and Allied Wealth for allegedly refusing to hire workers who had received deferred action from removal under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started under the Obama administration and placed in legal limbo after attempts by the Trump administration to suspend it.
Public School Funding
In 1975, Texas enacted a law allowing school districts to charge tuition for illegal immigrant public schoolchildren. MALDEF led the legal challenges to that law, which were ultimately successful in a 1982 United States Supreme Court decision titled Plyler v. Doe which held that the Texas law was unconstitutional. California would later attempt to overturn the effect of the decision by a state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 187 which also included a provision requiring localities to affirmatively assist immigration enforcement; MALDEF hailed a federal judicial decision overturning the measure.
MALDEF has also pressed for judicial intervention in state-level school funding debates. MALDEF led an effort to see the Supreme Court overturn Texas’s school financing laws: A 1973 effort failed at the federal Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court of Texas would later rule in MALDEF’s favor in 1989.
Opposition to Immigration Enforcement
In 2006, MALDEF joined with a number of other liberal immigration and Hispanic-interest groups to protest the efforts of the George W. Bush administration to engage in workplace-level enforcement actions. Spokespersons for some of the groups explicitly compared workplace enforcement actions to crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany.
After the Trump administration announced an intention to focus on removing violent felons from the country, MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz condemned the effort. Saenz instead encouraged keeping them in jail in the United States to “try to rehabilitate” them.
MALDEF has also proven a notable defender of so-called “sanctuary cities,” local jurisdictions which do not cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement. Despite opposing efforts by right-leaning states like Arizona to enact immigration enforcement rules stricter than federal requirements on the grounds that the country needs “one uniform nationwide policy (on immigration penalties),” MALDEF has supported efforts by cities to refuse to assist enforcement of immigration laws. In 2017, MALDEF led a lawsuit against a Texas law which would require local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance
In addition to its lobbying, litigation, and advocacy on immigration issues, MALDEF also sponsors the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA). CIYJA has, like MALDEF, taken a militant approach to seeking legal status for all illegal immigrants in the state; the group has disrupted events held by House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) to demand no compromise tightening of border security in exchange for legal status and a path to citizenship for illegally present immigrants.
In 2015, Borealis Philanthropy made a $107,000 grant to MALDEF “to support the work of CIYJA.”
MALDEF has advocated for and litigated in favor of affirmative action policies to favor Hispanics. MALDEF activists were involved in in-school presentations opposing California Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative), which substantially restricted the use of non-merit preferences by the state.
The group has continued to support litigation against efforts to restrict the use of racial preferences in university admissions. MALDEF filed a brief in support of the affirmative action policies of the University of Texas at Austin and hailed a 2013 Supreme Court decision which allowed the University’s policy to stand. When the Trump administration rescinded Obama administration guidance encouraging the use of racial and ethnic preferences, MALDEF issued a statement denouncing the move as pandering to neo-Nazi extremists.
MALDEF has been deeply involved in developing the Census procedures and questions concerning racial and ethnic identification and manipulating those questions to maximize the political power of MALDEF and its allies. The development of Hispanic as a distinct ethnicity in federal statistics dates to the 1970 Census period, when the Nixon administration asked about Hispanic identification on the partially circulated “long form” questionnaire. That was insufficient for MALDEF: The organization pressured the Carter administration to add a question asking about Hispanic ethnicity on the main Census response form for the 1980 United States Census, which it did. The effort was explicitly political: Reclassifying Hispanics as a distinct statistical category opened the way for ethnic gerrymandering and gave MALDEF and other advocacy groups the ability to seek more federal funding for the interests of the ethnic groups for which they spoke.
In 2010, MALDEF led an advocacy campaign encouraging responses to the Census taken that year; the liberal-left Public Welfare Foundation had provided a $200,000 grant to the organization for “support for outreach for the 2010 Census.” In commentary, MALDEF officials noted the relation between higher Census response rates and increased federal expenditures. The organization encouraged Hispanic respondents to classify their race as “Other” in the hope that the Census would classify Hispanics as a distinct “race” in future Censuses. In anticipation of the 2020 Census, the Obama administration made preparations to do so; the move was reversed after the election of President Donald Trump.
When the Trump administration proposed a question on the main 2020 Census form asking respondents about their U.S. citizenship status, MALDEF and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC filed suit to block the question. MALDEF’s president accused President Trump of “doing his best to whitewash Latinos out of existence” by placing the citizenship question on the short-form Census rather than the long-form.
MALDEF receives a substantial portion of its contribution revenue from organized left-wing interests, most prominently the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation was instrumental in the foundation of MALDEF; in 2000, the Ford Foundation gave MALDEF the largest identified contribution it has ever received, of $6.78 million. From 2010 through 2015, the Ford Foundation provided MALDEF with $8.9 million in total grants.
MALDEF has also taken funding from other major left-wing foundations. In 2014, the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided MALDEF with a $1,000,000 grant directed to MALDEF’s “voting rights litigation working group. In 2012, the Foundation to Support Open Society controlled by left-wing mega-donor George Soros provided MALDEF with $250,000 in “support for its Texas redistricting activities” among other programs. Left-wing pass-through entity NEO Philanthropy made contributions of $650,000 to MALDEF in 2015 and $1.2 million in 2014.
The organization has also taken substantial funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the California Endowment, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the Arcus Foundation. The corporate foundation of the oil company BP America also provided MALDEF with $500,000 in 2009, and the corporate foundation of Anheuser-Busch provided substantial support to MALDEF in 2009 and 2010.
MALDEF has received funds from other organized left-wing interests: The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Healthcare Workers-West provided MALDEF with $40,000 in 2017, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) provided $7,500 in that year, and the National Education Association provided $15,000 in 2016.
MALDEF itself has funded a number of organizations involved in ideological outreach to and political activation of left-leaning Hispanics as part of a “foundation grant to advance national Latino political empowerment.” Organizational recipients of MALDEF grants include the labor-union-aligned Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, and the pro-abortion Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
For more information, see Thomas A. Saenz
Thomas Saenz serves as president and general counsel of MALDEF. Prior to taking the position in 2009, Saenz served in the administration of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D); the Los Angeles Times called Saenz one of Villaraigosa’s “closest advisors.” He had worked as a staff lawyer for MALDEF before joining the Villaraigosa administration in 2005. In 2009, President Barack Obama reportedly considered appointing Saenz to a Justice Department post, but he withdrew from consideration amid concern he would be seen as too friendly to illegal immigrants. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) also considered Saenz for a seat on the California Supreme Court.
The MALDEF board of directors includes a number of prominent politicians and corporate officials. Former Texas State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-San Diego), and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina (D) serve on the board alongside former senior officers of Wells Fargo and Anheuser-Busch. Actress and Democratic Party activist Eva Longoria formerly served on the MALDEF board; this led to criticism of the organization for hypocrisy when it did not criticize a show produced by Longoria that seemed to trade on dismissive stereotypes of Latina domestic workers.
Alumni in Democratic Administrations
MALDEF has seen a number of its staff and senior officials chosen to serve in Democratic administrations at the federal, state, and local levels. Former MALDEF attorney Norma Cantu headed the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights during the Clinton administration. Then-MALDEF president John Trasvina was appointed to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division; previously, Trasvina had served in the Clinton administration after working for MALDEF as a staff lawyer and later as a Democratic Party Congressional staffer. Conservatives additionally alleged that the Obama administration Justice Department hired Voting Division staff lawyers exclusively from liberal and Democratic backgrounds; MALDEF was reportedly a source of a number of attorneys.
Sub-national Democratic administrations also poach staffers and officers from MALDEF: MALDEF’s controversial founding general counsel, Mario Obledo, was appointed Secretary of Health and Welfare in the first administration of Gov. Jerry Brown (D-California). Liberal municipal administrations also use MALDEF as a talent pool: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg (I), who ran for mayor as a staunch liberal with the support of former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, hired a MALDEF attorney as his policy chief.
Despite its functioning as a pipeline for Democratic and liberal governments, MALDEF still pretends to non-ideological positioning: In a 2007 hearing, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) objected to a George W. Bush administration official characterizing MALDEF as a liberal organization.