United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
January 19, 1997
My quest began as a young child immigrating from Mexico to America with my family in the 1950s. One of my first memories of this country was a sign my father pointed out to us when we arrived in El Paso, Texas. "No Dogs and No Mexicans," my father told us the sign said. "This is the way it will be," lie warned. But my father still believed America was a great country offering us opportunities we could not have anywhere else. As long as we worked hard and remained proud of who we are, we would succeed.
My father was right. Despite the barriers I faced as a Latina and as a woman, I graduated from college and planned to become a teacher. While in graduate school, I counseled high school students in East Los Angeles during a very turbulent period. The conditions in the schools in East L.A. were abominable. At the time, Latinos were more concentrated in segregated schools than any other minority in California. Thousands of students organized mass walkouts and demonstrations that became known as the East Los Angeles Blowouts.
I knew I could not teach children under these conditions. I came to understand that peaceful and real change did not come about in the streets. It was made in the courtroom and in the legislature. The law was the way to correct the injustices I saw first-hand in the school system, in the workplace and throughout society.
I knew well that the law cannot eradicate prejudice. But the law can change behaviors. As Martin Luther King has said, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me. But it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."
The journey through this museum is a chilling reminder of how a nation's laws can be manipulated not only for good but for evil. Nazi Germany and the genocide it perpetuated is the purest, most extreme act of evil in the 20th century. No reasonable person would argue otherwise.
The rise of tyranny is an insidious process, as Nazi Germany starkly illustrates. It involves a calculated abuse of the law that slowly and steadily robs individuals of their civil liberties and basic human rights.
In 1932, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis warned: We must be on guard, for fear that we erect our prejudices into legal principles. One year later, the Nazis would enact a law barring Jewish lawyers and notaries from working on legal matters in the city of Berlin. Hitler knew well the power of the law. Among the first legislation of the Third Reich was to prohibit.jcws from participating in all facets of the judicial system.
What are a nation's laws? As I see it, laws are the collective will and rules of the people. The law can be used to exclude or to include ... to oppress or to empower ... to enslave or to liberate ... in the extreme, to commit genocide. What is in the hearts and minds of the public determines which way it will go. Yet history also tells us that abuse of the law often involves a powerful minority exerting its will over a passive majority.
What separates our nation from Nazi Germany? Or, should I say, what prevents us from becoming like Nazi Germany? It is the principles memorialized in the monuments surrounding us ... monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
What makes our society different are the enduring principles of liberty, justice and equality contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What protects us is a legal system that enables citizens to hold its institutions accountable to these principles. What makes our country great is a respect for our laws, and our respect for the principle that the rule of the majority at all times must be tempered by the rights of minorities.
Although our country was founded on principles of equality, our history is blemished with acts that contradict them. Slavery, segregation, subjugation of women and scapegoating of minorities mar our past and our present. But the beauty of our society is that we have remedies to correct such injustices. These remedies are the creation and enforcement of laws that prohibit acts of discrimination and that promote equality.
Such remedies have paved the road on which we travel in our quest for liberty and justice for all Americans: for women, for blacks, for Latinos and for other minorities.
In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson described what he called a "sacred principle." The will of the majority shall prevail, Jefferson said. But to be rightful, that will must be reasonable. The minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect. To violate this would be oppression.
It is to this sacred principle that my organization is dedicated. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, better known as MALDEF, works to protect and promote the civil rights of the nation's 26 million Latinos.
Simply put, MALDEF is about the work of America. Our work is a vigorous, vital patriotism of principle that flows from the Bill of Rights - the original contract with America.
MALDEF uses our nation's laws as the vehicle for achieving the elusive goal of liberty and justice for all Americans. I want to talk to you today about the work of MALDEF because it exemplifies how laws can be created and enforced to achieve social justice and equality.
MALDEF was founded in 1968, but the need to protect the civil rights of Latinos goes back more than 100 years. In 1848, when much of northern Mexico became part of this country, Latinos were guaranteed the civil rights that belong to all citizens. But in reality the most basic of these rights have been denied.
Between the first and second world wars, the Southwest was a segregated society where Americans of Mexican descent were considered second-class citizens. Latinos were forced to use separate restaurants, schools, parks, bathrooms and even cemeteries. The right to vote and to elect leaders of our choice often was denied. Schooling was segregated, of very low quality and, for many, unavailable beyond the sixth grade.
Nearly one-half million Latinos fought in the armed forces in World War 11 and were the country's most decorated ethnic group. But the war heroes who were hailed as Yankee liberators in Paris returned home to find employment notices that read, "Help Wanted, Anglo. No Mexicans." Separate bathrooms bore the sign "Hombres Aqui." Restaurant signposts announced, "No Mexicans served." In the extreme, Latinos were being beaten to death by police.
Returning white veterans needed work in the early 1950s. Under a program called "Operation Wetback," the U.S. government rounded up and deported some four million workers of Mexican origin. Many of these people were American citizens and legal residents.
It was in the post-World War II period that the Latino struggle for equal protection of the law truly began. In 1954, a pivotal case was won that would have profound legal implications. The case involved a Latino defendant who had been tried and convicted of murder in Jackson County, Texas - an area where 15 percent of the population was Latino. The defendant's jury panel, however, included not one Latino. In fact, no Spanish-surnamed person had served on any jury in Jackson County during the past 25 years.
The case was the first involving discrimination against Latinos to reach the nation's highest court. And it was the first U.S. Supreme Court suit to be argued by Latino attorneys. It was a victory.
Chief justice Earl Warren held that persons of Mexican descent were a distinct class entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. The decision meant that Latinos could seek redress for discrimination under the law.
But Latino jurors still remained scarce. This was a problem that particularly incensed one San Antonio attorney named Pete Tijerina. In 1966, Tijerina represented a woman who had lost most of her leg in a traffic accident. When the case went to trial, the lawyer found out there were only two Spanish-surnamed jurors in the county to choose from: One had been dead for ten years; the other could not speak English.
The case was the final straw for Tijerina. He joined with other like-minded attorneys to form an organization that would use the law to eliminate educational, economic and political disparities facing Latinos. That organization was MALDEF.
Among its first actions, MALDEF argued before the Texas Court of Appeals that the exclusion of Latinos from San Antonio juries was unconstitutional. The court agreed, putting forth a ruling that would end decades of discrimination.
Nearly 30 years later, MALDEF continues to work within the legal system to open doors for a group of people who have been shut out from the basic rights enjoyed by the larger society. We work on behalf of all the nation's Latinos, who, by the turn of the century, will make up the largest minority group in this country.
Today, as in the past, our continuing quest for liberty and justice involves securing a decent education for our children.
As with African Americans, school integration was critical to gain equal education for Latino children. MALDEF sued school districts to integrate around the Southwest and won.
An additional barrier facing many Latino children was - and still is - their limited life experience of the barrio neighborhood where mostly Spanish is spoken. Schools were - and still often are - places where cultural norms are foreign and intimidating.
MALDEF presented legal arguments that the best education for these children is bilingual and bicultural. A court of appeals upheld our arguments, ruling that bilingual and bicultural education was constitutionally required for Latino children.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that equal education meant more than equal facilities and equal access to teachers. Students who had trouble with the English language must be given programs to help them overcome these barriers. The high court's decision in the case remains the law of the land.
Methods of financing public schools and allocating resources also have prevented Latino students from equal access to education. In landmark lawsuits, MALDEF has successfully challenged the constitutionality of funding systems and resource allocation strategies that deny low-income and minority students their right to an equal education.
Securing a decent education for our nation's children remains an ongoing challenge.
And in our continuing quest for liberty and justice, we must secure a workplace that does not discriminate.
The Civil Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In the Southwest, employers essentially ignored the law since no one had ever held them accountable to it.
But soon after its founding, MALDEF began representing clients who demanded enforcement of the law. A supermarket chain in California, manufacturing companies in Texas and nuclear plants in New Mexico were among many large companies charged with excluding Latino workers.
Only a few years before MALDEF's actions, want-ads in the Southwest typically read, "Anglos wanted, no Mexicans." In just a few years, that common phrase was replaced by the expression, "We are an equal opportunity employer."
In case after case, MAILDEF's legal challenges have helped eliminate discriminatory practices in recruitment, hiring and promotion in both the public and private sector.
Now, as affirmative action policies come under attack, the goal of securing true equality in the workplace has become more elusive.
And in our continuing quest for liberty and justice, we must ensure the full participation of all American citizens in the democratic process.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to increase voting among African Americans in the south by halting practices that excluded them. When the act came up for renewal in 1975, MALDEF worked to ensure that the revised law was expanded to bring Latino voters into the electoral process.
We argued before Congress for bilingual voting materials and voting assistance and other changes to address the disenfranchisement of the Latino voter. Our efforts resulted in passage of the so-called "Hispanic Amendments" to the Voting Rights Act.
The act created the legal context in which MALDEF could protect Latino citizens from voting rights abuses.
Among MALDEF's voting rights cases is a now historic challenge to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Our goal was to end illegal gerrymandering of the Latino community. We also sought to provide an opportunity for the community to elect a candidate of its choice. Our victory in the case led to the election in 1991 of the first Latino and the first woman in more than 115 years to sit on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
We have made significant progress in securing the right of Latinos to fully participate in the democratic process.
And in our continuing quest for liberty and justice, we must protect the inalienable dignity of all persons in this nation, regardless of their immigration status.
Recent events have forced us to re-examine how the law is being used by the majority to deprive, exclude and denigrate minority groups. In 1982, MALDEF went before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully securing the right of undocumented immigrant children to a free public education. A little more than a decade later, we found ourselves in the courtroom re-defending the right we already had secured.
We were back in court in 1994 after the passage of a dangerous initiative by California voters. That initiative, Proposition 187, was a direct assault on the constitutional and basic human rights of undocumented immigrants. The measure illustrates how the majority can use the law to deprive the minority of its constitutional and human rights. The proposition turns Jefferson's sacred principle of a tempered majority on its head.
What would Proposition 187 do? It requires anyone suspected of being undocumented to prove his or her citizenship or be reported to the INS. Among its provisions, Proposition 187 seeks to deny public education and non-emergency health care to suspected individuals who could not prove their immigration status.
The measure also would deny prenatal care to undocumented immigrant women. It is interesting to note that the German Reich Work Ministry decreed in 1942 that regulations for the protection of pregnant and nursing mothers did not apply to Jews.
The effect of Proposition 187 would be to turn tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers and social service providers into immigration agents. They would be forced to decide instantly whom to suspect and whom to report.
Sadly, Proposition 187 won by a healthy margin. California voters were deceived into believing that immigrants were draining our economy, abusing the social welfare system, displacing American workers and threatening tile moral and social fabric of our society. Yet study after study shows that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, contribute more to our society than they take away. In fact, it is immigrants who have helped to pull my home state of California out of a tenacious recession through home-buying and business start-ups.
How did the proponents of Prop 187 succeed? They won by vilifying and dehumanizing a group of people ... a group of people who could not defend themselves against baseless charges that they were to blame for the ills befalling the larger society.
How did the Nazis implement the "Final Solution"? When the German people believed that Jews were less than human. Dehumanized, the Jews became acceptable targets to be denied their civil liberties - at first - and then their very lives.
According to the supporters of 187, the villains in California are illegal aliens. The term conjures up an image riot only of a criminal, but something not of this world. What is the crime these people perpetrate? The truth is that they risk their necks to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The media have been used to stir up the fear. TV ads show images of brown-skinned people scurrying away from searchlights, overcrowding schools with their children, siphoning off the public welfare system.
Dehumanized, the immigrant without papers has become an acceptable target to be denied basic human and civil rights. The public has come to believe it is O.K. to throw their children out of school and deny them medical care for anything but an emergency.
But how would teachers and doctors know whom to ask for documentation? Who would be suspect? The answer is anyone who looks Latino, speaks with an accent or is somehow different.
Proposition 187 contains no measures to address the root causes of illegal immigration across the border. The real problem is the economic disparity between the U.S. and Mexico - a disparity in the standard of living that does not exist between two bordering countries anywhere else in the world.
What the measure would do, though, is increase discrimination against Latinos or anyone who fit the image of an illegal alien. In fact, many of the extremist anti-immigrant groups make no distinction between illegal or legal immigrants or even U.S. citizens. Their target is all Latinos and other people of color.
The day after Proposition 187 passed, MALDEF went to court. We argued that the measure denies due process and equal rights protections guaranteed by the 14th Amendment by encouraging rampant discrimination. The court ruled in our favor, barring implementation of the initiative.
A year after 187 passed, Congress considered proposals to eliminate birthright citizenship for children born in the United States of undocumented immigrant parents. The 14th Amendment guarantees U.S. citizenship to all persons born in this country. If enacted, such proposals would, for the first time since slavery, deny children their birthright based on the status of their parents.
Despite such blatant disregard for constitutional guarantees, the proposal was contained as a plank in the Republican Party platform only a few months ago. Denial of citizenship also was part of Hitler's agenda when, in 1935, the Nazis restricted citizenship to persons of German or so-called "kindred blood."
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an immigration bill containing provisions that would permit states to deny public education to the children of undocumented immigrants. Fortunately, such provisions never made it to the final immigration reform bill signed into law by President Clinton.
This country has been strengthened by the principle that no matter what conditions you are born into, you can reach your potential if you work hard at it. It is most disturbing that new laws are being enacted that will chip away at this vital American ideal. The welfare bill signed into law last summer denies public benefits and services to legal immigrants - a group who are integral, productive members of American society. That bill, as well as the new immigration law, are examples of the divisive measures that increase the distinction between citizens and legal immigrants and further marginalize the undocumented.
On the docket of the new 105th Congress is a proposal to make English the official language of the U.S. government. Everyone recognizes English is the common language of this country. Yet the proposals being weighed by Congress would do little more than deny Americans who lack English fluency equal access to the democratic process. Older Americans and other citizens who are not proficient in English would be denied the ability to vote and the full range of interaction with their government.
Instead of capitalizing on the fact that our population includes people from all over the world, we seem to be penalizing them. Their language and cross-cultural skills can be an asset and a bridge in an increasingly global economy. But we choose to push them farther into the margin, rather than drawing on their strengths for the benefit of the larger society.
American culture has always been dynamic. As new ethnic groups come into our society, the majority absorbs bits of these cultures into the mainstream. That diversity is what makes this country exciting and dynamic. It has been the source of much of our strength.
Around the world we witness varying degrees of civil discontent: Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda. Powerful minorities exert their will over a passive majority. Or, an untempered majority robs the minority of its basic human rights. Attempts are made to suppress differences in religion, ethnicity and language. But history has taught us that this approach does not work and does not promote harmony.
We must learn from the rest of the world and from the tragic history memorialized within these walls. The complexion of America is rapidly changing. Our challenge is to remain true to our basic principles in the face of these incredible demographic changes.
America is an experiment in human diversity. I believe in the end we will find what truly binds us - what holds us together - is our steadfast commitment to the principles of liberty, justice and equality. These principles must be reflected in our laws. And, perhaps more importantly, these principles must be etched in the hearts and minds of all Americans.
President Jimmy Carter said this well when he observed: "The law is not the private property of lawyers, nor is justice the exclusive province of judges and juries. In the final analysis, true justice is not a matter of courts and law books, but of a commitment in each of us to liberty and mutual respect."
Let us all join together in that commitment in our quest to achieve a truly just and inclusive society.