MALDEF's Thomas Saenz Talks Latino Civil Rights and Trump's Presidency

A group of women demonstrating on the U.S. Supreme Court steps.
A group of women demonstrating on the U.S. Supreme Court steps the weekend before Monday's oral arguments on President Barack Obama's immigration executive action prayed over MALDEF's Thomas Saenz, who was arguing before the Court. MALDEF

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By Suzanne Gamboa

The election of Donald Trump has been followed by protests and incidents of racial slurs, harassment, and other activities. The incidences have led Trump to tell his supporters to "Stop it" during an interview with "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday. But such events and more are likely to continue. Civil rights groups have raised their guard and issued notices of plans to vigilantly monitor and oppose civil rights violations or efforts to roll back civil rights.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) was founded in 1968 to help protect the civil rights of Mexican Americans, and it was later extended to other Latinos. Its president Thomas Saenz spoke to NBC News on how it has responded to Trump's election and what it plans in the future:

NBC: Have you seen an increase in calls or activity about civil rights violations during and since the election that’s made you ramp up your role?

Saenz: At this point all we’ve had is a lot of inquiries and questions and concerns, which is understandable. It’s somewhat hard to respond until we know what the Trump administration plans to do and that has been developing as the days go by.

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We did release some basic information for immigrants about their rights, but that is something that is going to change as we know more and more about what Trump is actually going to do versus what he said in the campaign.

Whatever happens would require a different kind of work for us, perhaps focusing more on federal enforcement and challenging federal enforcement more than we have in recent years.

NBC: What should people do if they are harassed, bullied, discriminated against, threatened with deportation even if they are U.S. citizens?

Saenz: We want those calls. We want to hear what kind of harassment so we can ascertain whether we need to challenge it or depending on the setting, it's unlawful.

You can’t subject a kid to bullying and not step in, especially if what is going on is based on race or national origin. You can’t as a business discriminate on the basis of race or national origin. In the state of California, you can't discriminate on the basis of immigration status. A lot of what going on is certainly challengeable.

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NBC: Do you expect a change in the sort of cases you’ve been dealing with considering the acts of bullying, harassment, racial slurs and other things we’ve been seeing amid the election of Donald Trump.

Saenz: In education, we might see a need to step in and see where schools are not protecting kids from bullying. In my estimation, that’s not a long-lasting phenomenon.

If the Trump administration reduces the federal role in federal civil rights oversight, we will have to be doing more monitoring in the states, even litigation in places where the federal government may have been a bigger player in the past.

On immigration, depending on what the enforcement plan is, we may be challenging on a nationwide basis or challenging specific tactics, whether its predawn home raids, street raids, which we’ve seen in the past, but not in recent memory.

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On the policy side, we will be focusing more on what is coming out of administration on regulatory proposals in the Federal Register and the like.

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We will still do our important voting [rights] work because that’s the strongest message. An administration should be careful about alienating the Latino community too much more than it already has because Latinos will be voting in bigger and bigger numbers.

As big a question as the administration is, what Congress will do and won’t do is as important. The notion that Congress simply is going to follow what Trump wants is incorrect. He didn’t have the support in the establishment.

There’s so much Trump says he wants to do, but he doesn’t have the power to do it, so much really requires congressional action.

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NBC: Are you expecting any changes in the Dept of Justice's civil rights enforcement role and how that would impact your work?

Saenz: Clearly we are expecting to have to do much, much more without federal participation. We’ve seen that before and it’s certainly something that puts a greater burden on civil rights organizations.

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NBC: How do you think the civil rights of Latinos will be affected by this administration?

Saenz: I think there will be challenges, but the Latino community is extraordinarily resilient and resolute about its beliefs in the Constitution, which is an important protection against any excesses by any administration. Also, in a number of states, California for example, the state is committed to protecting civil rights. There will be challenges but I’m confident the community will bounce back, the community will unite and the community will hold those responsible for any threat to Latino rights.

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