The new head of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund said during a visit to San Francisco that “immigration reform is an absolute top priority for MALDEF.”

MALDEF President Thomas Saenz said immigration reform has been at the forefront of the 41-year-old civil rights group’s agenda for decades, and he expects it to remain there.

He said two other priorities are voting rights, including census and redistricting issues, and education rights for Hispanics.

“Great progress has been made in 41 years, but by the same token, we face great challenges,” Saenz said.

“I think MALDEF has a central role to play in achieving progress and civil rights for the Latino community,” he said.

Saenz, 43, began his job as president and general counsel of MALDEF in August. He spoke in an interview Friday while visiting San Francisco for meetings.

MALDEF, which describes itself as the nation’s leading nonprofit Latino legal organization, was founded in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.

It moved its headquarters to San Francisco in 1970 and remained there until 1986. The group now has its headquarters in Los Angeles and regional offices in San Antonio, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Saenz said MALDEF differs from most other Hispanic civil rights groups in that it pursues litigation as well as public policy advocacy and community education.

“We sometimes characterize ourselves as the law firm for the Latino community,” he said.
While the group keeps the word Mexican-American in its name for historical reasons, it seeks to represent the interests of all Latinos, he said.

Saenz, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Yale University, worked for MALDEF from 1993 to 2005, becoming its vice president in charge of litigation in 2001.

He was lead counsel for MALDEF in a successful federal lawsuit filed by several groups against California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 voter-approved initiative that would have denied social services and public education to undocumented immigrants.

Saenz also filed lawsuits to protect the free-speech rights of day laborers to solicit work on street corners and worked on an unsuccessful challenge to Proposition 227, an English-only education measure enacted by voters in 1998.

From 2005 to 2009, he served as chief counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In January, Saenz was told by the Obama administration that he was being considered for the post of assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

But in March, in the wake of conservative-led controversy about his stance on immigration matters, Saenz was informed by Attorney General Eric Holder that he would not be nominated. Instead, President Obama named Thomas Perez, a civil rights lawyer then serving as Maryland’s labor secretary, to the post.

Saenz said Holder told him in a telephone call that there was a concern that some of his actions and speeches could be misconstrued.

Saenz said, “I knew it had upset certain political forces on the right in the country,” but said, “I’m very proud of that work.”

Saenz said his chief regret is that he never had a chance to defend his record publicly because he was never officially nominated.

“I didn’t get that opportunity,” he said. “But I can’t complain about not getting the job because I have a wonderful job now.”

Saenz said there are four aspects of MALDEF’s efforts for immigration reform.

First, he said, “We need a path to legalization of the status of millions of people who have contributed to our society and economy and have no legal status.”

Saenz said other changes would be to assure that people from different countries have equal chances to come to the United States, to improve the integration of immigrants into U.S. society, and to reform the enforcement of immigration laws.

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