Thomas A. Saenz is the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). A longtime activist for expanded immigration and senior advisor to former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), Saenz is also an occasional columnist at the HuffPost and speaks before left-leaning organizations on Hispanic-interest issues.
Thomas A. Saenz was born in 1967 in southern California. He attended Yale University where he graduated summa cum laude. He then attended Yale Law School where he received his law degree. He then clerked for a couple of federal judges, including the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ “liberal lion,” the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt. 
First MALDEF Stint
In 1993, Saenz joined MALDEF as a staff attorney. One of his first cases was suing the state of California over Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 to prevent illegal immigrants from accessing public services. It banned illegal immigrants from education, most healthcare services, and other state-funded services. It also required all service providers to report suspected illegal immigrants to the California Attorney General’s office and to federal immigration authorities.
MALDEF, along with other organizations, sued to block the implementation of the proposition. A federal judge immediately blocked all but one provision of Prop 187, a provision that made the forgery of state documents a felony.
In July 1995, an appellate court panel upheld the initial decision to block Prop 187 from taking effect. Saenz was one of the lead attorneys for the coalition of groups that sought to block the legislation. “Proposition 187’s numerous constitutional problems will prevent it from ever being implemented,” said Saenz.
Prop 187 continued to have problems in the federal system and was never completely implemented. In 1999, new California Governor Gray Davis (D) sought to end the legal battle over Prop 187 by seeking a compromise between supporters and opponents. But Saenz expressed puzzlement over Davis’s proposal. “We are prepared to listen to whatever the Governor proposes, and if that’s through mediation, so be it. But we have never had any discussions with the Governor about this, and we don’t know what he’s putting on the table. We believe strongly that he should drop this entire appeal.” said Saenz. Eventually, Davis and the state of California dropped the appeal, permanently blocking Proposition 187.
In 1996, Saenz became Los Angeles regional counsel for MALDEF. He challenged an English-only education initiative that was approved by California voters in 1998. In 2000, he became national senior counsel and in 2001 he became vice president of litigation. His final act at MALDEF was to challenge California’s redistricting maps in 2001.
Los Angeles City Government
In August 2005, Saenz left MALDEF and joined the four-person executive team for then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D). Saenz officially became counsel to the mayor of Los Angeles. One of Saenz’s jobs was to help lead the legislative effort to change the governance of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Saenz also served as a lead negotiator with the city’s public employee unions. During Saenz’s tenure, Los Angeles suffered a major financial downturn that threatened its budget.
Return to MALDEF
In 2009, Saenz returned to MALDEF, this time as president and general counsel. Before his return to MALDEF, Saenz was considered by the Obama administration to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. However, the Obama administration passed on appointing him due to Saenz’s support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and opposition to Arizona’s restrictions on illegal immigration. The Obama administration was worried about provoking a larger debate on immigration.
In 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) considered Saenz for a seat on the California Supreme Court. Saenz was described “regarded as a brilliant thinker by critics and admirers alike.” But Saenz was viewed as a controversial pick due his activist work. Brown instead opted for a more moderate justice.
In 2016, Saenz argued in support of the Obama Administration’s executive order preventing the deportation of certain illegal immigrants.
After Donald Trump’s election as president, Saenz expressed readiness to sue the Trump administration. “I think there will be lots of litigation about what is going on, not just now but certainly in the future,” he told NBC News.