The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has represented Mexican Americans in civil-rights lawsuits since it was incorporated in Texas in 1967.
The pivotal moment in its founding occurred in a Jourdanton, Texas, courtroom in June 1966. Attorney Pete Tijerina, representing a Mexican American female client in a lawsuit against an Anglo, faced an initial jury pool with no Mexican Americans. A second jury pool on August 1, 1966, yielded only two Spanish-surnamed jurors, one who was deceased and another who did not speak English. Tijerina won his case; however, he obtained only a portion of the money he believed was fair for his client, who had suffered an amputated leg in a car accident caused by the Anglo defendant. Tijerina believed the jury selection process determined the low monetary outcome of the case. After this experience, he set out with fellow Mexican-American attorneys and Jack Greenberg of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to organize a legal entity through which Mexican Americans would challenge discrimination in the courts, education, employment, and immigration.
Tijerina both cofounded and served as the fund's first executive director, and Mario Obledo, a former state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was its first general counsel. Its first national office was in San Antonio. A board of directors was established to oversee the organization. In 1968 Tijerina, with the assistance of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP, obtained a $2,250,000 five-year grant from the Ford Foundation to implement "litigation and general education activities." MALDEF's areas of interest included litigation in education, employment, and police-brutality cases. The fund also conducted research and published documents on the legal rights of Mexican Americans and disseminated a newsletter, MALDEF. The Ford grant provided scholarship money to educate more Mexican-American lawyers. At first non-Hispanic lawyers made up a sizable portion of MALDEF staff and cooperating attorneys.
In its first three years, MALDEF floundered in its attempts to file constitutionally significant lawsuits and was inundated with routine legal-aid cases that could be resolved outside the courts. In addition to its difficulty in gaining traction, some of its San Antonio staff were deemed "militant," a perception that caused the Ford Foundation to recommend moving the headquarters out of the state and replacing Tijerina as executive director. MALDEF chose San Francisco, California, as its new headquarters and selected Mario Obledo as executive director and general counsel. The national office was subsequently moved to Los Angeles, California, and continued to maintain a regional branch in San Antonio. Later, it added regional branches in Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
Under Obledo's direction, MALDEF began to work on employment discrimination cases with the NAACP legal office. He improved the national standing of the organization by involving it in Supreme Court cases through friend-of-the-court briefs, sometimes filed in conjunction with other organizations. In 1973, when the case of Demetrio Rodríguez et al. v. San Antonio Independent School District was tried before the United States Supreme Court, civil-rights proponents suffered a major defeat when the court ruled against equal financing of education. Though not a MALDEF case, the decision had significant bearing on MALDEF's legal strategies. That same year MALDEF achieved its first successful litigation before the Supreme Court in the case of White, et al. v. Regester, et al., which resulted in the implementation of single-member districts and served as a precedent for Texas county, city council, and school board districts. This litigation was instrumental in eventually bringing Texas into compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required the federal approval of state electoral practices. In 1989 MALDEF won a historic victory in Edgewood ISD v. State of Texas, in which the Texas Supreme Court unanimously found that the state's system of public finance of education was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to alter it.
Obledo resigned in 1973 and was replaced by Vilma Martínez. Drawing on her experience in acquiring the initial Ford Foundation support for MALDEF, she brought to the fund a more sophisticated fund-raising plan. In addition, under her direction, MALDEF set up an education-litigation project that filed lawsuits on behalf of the children of undocumented workers refused admission to public schools. In 1982, after several years of effort, MALDEF argued Plyler v. Doe before the Supreme Court and won. The court held that the children were protected under the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and were entitled to a public education. In 1980 the organization established a leadership-development program, which trained 1,300 individuals by 1992; more than 50 percent of the program's graduates garnered appointments to local, state, and national public-policy boards. In Texas a goal was established of getting an additional 500 Mexican Americans into the program in the 1990s.
In addition to its strong emphasis on educational issues and leadership development, MALDEF concentrated on women's equity and voting rights. In 1974 it set up a Chicana Rights Project (CRP) to challenge sex discrimination against Mexican-American women. The project's national office was in San Antonio, and it maintained a regional branch in San Francisco. The CRP lost its foundation support in the early 1980s, and MALDEF discontinued it. In the 1970s MALDEF joined the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to battle voting inequities. The eighty-eight lawsuits filed by this project between 1974 and 1984 increased voter registration among Mexican Americans. MALDEF also successfully lobbied to ensure that the 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 include Spanish-surnamed citizens in the Southwest.
Subsequently, MALDEF turned its attention to the state's public higher-education system in LULAC et al. v. Richards et al., a 1987 class-action lawsuit that charged the state with discrimination against Mexican Americans in South Texas because of its inadequate funding of colleges in the area. The jury in the 1991 Brownsville trial did not find the state guilty of discrimination, but did note that the legislature had failed to establish a "first-class" system of colleges and universities in South Texas. Eventually, the case led to the South Texas Initiative, passed by the Texas legislature in 1993. Included in this measure, beginning on September 1, 1993, were steps to improve University of Texas System schools in Brownsville, Edinburg, San Antonio, and El Paso, and newly-acquired Texas A&M University System branches in Corpus Christi, Laredo, and Kingsville. A group known as the Border Region Higher Education Council helped to pass the legislation and monitored the program's progress.
Throughout the 2000s, MALDEF undertook new challenges regarding immigrants’ rights and hate crimes in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In 2005 Vicente v. Barnett opposed a practice in effect since the late 1990s by U.S. vigilantes to “hunt and detain” immigrants crossing into the United States along the Arizona-U.S. border. MALDEF won the case in 2009. In Reyes v. City of Farmers Branch, (Farmers Branch, Texas), MALDEF challenged Ordinance 2952 by the city that required all apartment residents to possess a “residential occupancy lease” and non-citizen adults to provide information on their “lawful presence” in the United States. Working with the ACLU Immigrants Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas, MALDEF was able to enjoin the ordinance, thereby assuring that the case moved forward. Other litigation has involved racial profiling and hate crimes. In Melendres v. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, the organization opposed the detaining of Latinos solely to question their “immigration status.” The lawsuit survived a court challenge and was ordered to move forward in 2009. Following the killing of Luis Ramírez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, MALDEF successfully sought that charges be brought against his assailants. Two of the defendants were convicted of the “fatal beating” of Ramírez, and sentenced to nine years in prison. The Ramírez case was tried during a period when the FBI reported a 40 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos.
MALDEF has continued to work in other areas on behalf of its constituents. It supported the Troubled Assets Relief Program to assist homeowners facing foreclosure, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a law that sought job training and educational opportunities.
Throughout its long history of pursuing justice, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has added programs and projects, as needed, to represent its constituents.