Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has no special suit to wear, no special meal planned and no superstitious ritual he’ll undertake before he argues for the first time in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Monday.
Instead, he’ll walk into the high court knowing the difference made in his life when someone, his mother, argued for a better future for him.
Saenz, 49, is one of four attorneys arguing before the Supreme Court on President Barack Obama’s proposed plan to shield millions of immigrants from deportation and allow them to work.
He is the attorney who will present the “human face” affected by the plan summed up in three mothers, all here illegally, all too afraid to reveal too much about themselves and all unwilling to attend the oral arguments because their hometowns are hemmed in by Border Patrol checkpoints.
In a way, it is turnabout for Saenz. It was his mother who stood up for him many years ago and showed him what it means to fight for civil rights.
As a young boy, Saenz was – as he puts it – "such a nerd." He was so ahead of his classmates in 7th grade, he was given the chance to skip 8th grade and go on to high school.
When he went with his parents to arrange his 9th grade schedule, the counselor looked at the school he was coming from and his parents and tried to put him in a mid-level Algebra class, despite his stellar grades, he said.
“It was my mother who stood up and said she was not leaving until they put me in the higher level class,” Saenz said. “I was ready to accept what this old white counselor was saying and so was my father, so it was was my mother who stood up or me.”
Years later, Saenz went to law school wanting to be a civil rights lawyer. "My parents raised my brother and me with pride in our heritage and civil rights and their concern for civil rights was real. They really inspired in us a dedication to service,” he said.
Unlike the mothers he’ll be arguing for Monday, both Saenz’s parents are citizens with roots in California so deep that some family members pre-date California's entry to the U.S. as a state. Like many Mexican Americans, his family is part of previous era in Latino history when the politics of borders separated families.
Saenz’s mother was born in Miami, Arizona. Her mother was from Jalisco, Mexico and her father from Spain. Saenz’s father grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. His father’s mother and grandmother, he said, “have been in LA since who knows when. His father was from Las Cruces, N.M. and Sonora, Chihuahua.
“It’s one of those situations where they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them,” he said.
His parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college when they left high school but later they each earned associate's degrees, he said. Their children would have to do more.
“They expected my brother and I to go to college from day one,” Saenz said.
Saenz went to Yale where he graduated summa cum laude and to Yale Law School. His brother, a year older, is a West Point graduate and career Army colonel with 30 years in the military.
“My parents raised my brother and me with pride in our heritage and civil rights and their concern for civil rights was real. They really inspired in us a dedication to service,” he said.
That also gave him an acute awareness to the inequality and prejudice around him while growing up in Alhambra, Calif., he said.
He recalled that he and Victor Valdez were the only Latino students in the highest level English Advance Placement classes in his school that was a third Asian American, a third white and a third Latino.
Saenz said it was through reading history that he developed a sense that lawyers had a lot of influence over society.
Saenz doesn't talk at length about himself. His conversation is measured and getting him to divulge personal details can take a bit of prodding.
That deliberateness is mixed with a heavy dose of passion for equality, civil rights and the law.
After two years clerking with a judge, Saenz went to work for MALDEF, a 48-year-old civil rights organization that is considered the law firm of the Latino community.
The legal work of the storied organization has ensured all children, regardless of immigration status, get a public school education through the Plyler v. Doe case and the Voting Rights Act also protected Latinos and other minority groups from voter discrimination. Because of its legal work, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of a Texas redistricting plan drawn by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
In his first stint at MALDEF, a stretch of 12 years, Saenz went from a staff attorney to national vice president in charge of litigation. He took a break to work for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but returned to MALDEF as president and general counsel in 2009.
In an interview, Saenz mentions almost in passing his work arguing a case considered the turning point in California politics, when the Latino vote made it nearly impossible for a Republican to win statewide office.
It was the challenge to Proposition 187, an initiative approved by voters to deny social services and education to immigrants. The proposition was ultimately overturned and the attempt to institute it turned many California Latinos against the Republican party.
“It was certainly the case with the biggest impact, though I’m very proud of having the chance to participate in a number of important cases at MALDEF,” Saenz said.
He cited successful challenges of anti-day laborer laws. He said he’s also proud of cases in which MALDEF may not have prevailed in court, but the litigation brought societal change, such as a challenge to an attempt to reinstate an English only law in California.
To get the chance to argue before the Supreme Court Monday, Saenz had to persuade the court that the arguments needed to go beyond the legal-speak and include evidence from real families.
The three women are known on court documents as Jane Doe, all three are mothers and each has lived in the U.S. more than 10 years. Two have not gone to school beyond 8th grade and the other is a high school graduate.
Two work: one is a waitress and does child care, the third sells items at a flea market, along with food she makes. The third is studying to get her GED while she cares for a mother with Alzheimer’s. At least two are active in their church and at their children’s school.
“This is another opportunity to ensure that the civil rights perspective that we have and the perspective of the community we represent is going to be heard,” said Saenz who gets 10 minutes before the justices.
Part of the purpose for going before the court is to ensure there is recognition in the case about “who we are talking about when we talk about deferred action,” Saenz said.
But also, he said he will be able to say things that perhaps the federal government would avoid saying.
For example, the implementation of the administration’s 5-year-old priority system for deportations, has been a “very arbitrary and non-uniform system” that doesn’t serve anybody, he said.
Saenz sees another purpose to the case. Although he didn’t mention it and would never suggest it has anything to do with him, the purpose seems to be embedded in what he saw in his mother when she made sure he was not not short-changed on his education.
“It’s about hope for the future. It’s about hope for this nation,” Saenz said. “It’s about putting in place an initiative that will allow us to recognize that these parents are making contributions, if through no other means than they are raising U.S. citizen children who will be critical part of our future workforce, a critical part of our leadership".