1990s: The Puerto Rican Population Shifts
Significant shifts in the Puerto Rican population in New York City occurred in the 1990s that would begin to impact the direction of the work of PRLDEF.
While Puerto Ricans remained, at 800,000, the largest Latino group in the City, there was a widespread perception that their influence began to wane in comparison to the rapid growth of Puerto Rican communities in Florida. In fact, at the same time that its Latino population was becoming more diversified, New York State was the only state in the country to register a decline in its Puerto Rican population during the 1990s.
In the 1990s, the Latino community faced threats to affirmative action, a dismantling of government entitlement programs and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. PRLDEF developed special programs focused on the areas of Latina Rights, Poverty and Economic Justice and Voting Rights to help overcome these issues.
PRLDEF continued to litigate language rights cases during the 1990s, after many workplaces began to enact “English-only” rules in cases such as Ramos v. Runyon and González v. Christ Hospital in New Jersey, PRLDEF argued that these workplace rules resulted in national origin and race employment discrimination.
The organization also expanded its docket to include litigation in the field of environmental equity, representing the More Gardens! Coalition, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and other community gardens and gardeners in their struggle to preserve community gardens throughout the city as they were being sold to private developers or converted to other uses. New York City has one of the lowest open space standards of any major metropolitan area, and PRLDEF fought to ensure the right of minority residents to access green recreational spaces.
In this decade PRLDEF continued to play a role in efforts to desegregate the nation’s public schools especially in Hartford, Connecticut. In Sheff v. O’Neil, PRLDEF was part of a team of attorneys that secured a landmark opinion from the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that minority children in Hartford’s schools were deprived or educational opportunities compared to white students in Hartford’s suburbs. Declaring that the Hartford school system was racially isolated, the court ordered the state to engage in remedial efforts.
New Focuses and New Alliances
The 1990s also saw a long-overdue focus on the unique challenges of Latina rights within the larger civil rights focus. A special project focused on the reality that often government policies and decisions have a larger impact on Latina women than on men. Challenges to New Jersey’s decisions to restrict benefits to women who conceive while on public welfare were lodged in an administrative tribunal as well as a challenge to New York’s decision to close OB-Gyn beds in a minority community in Mussington v. St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
The 1990s also saw PRLDEF’s most serious foray into criminal law with the successful representation of Professor Rafael Rivera Garcia as he faced attempted murder charges in the Bronx in New York v. Rivera Garcia. A muralist and professor, Mr. Rivera Garcia was teaching in the Bronx in an exchange program between the University of Puerto Rico and Hostos Community College. His decision to move into the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx resulted in a series of racist and life-threatening acts taken by one of his neighbors against the professor and his family. Despite a restraining order and repeated visits to the local police, the racial harassment never abated and the professor acted in self-defense in the last encounter with his white neighbor. Ruben Franco, a noted criminal defense attorney and then President & General Counsel at PRLDEF, took on the defense along with PRLDEF attorneys and eventually won a jury acquittal of the major crimes, and the release of Rivera Garcia on all ancillary crimes. At the time, the Rivera Garcia case was a rallying cry for all police abuse and racial profiling organizing throughout New York.
In 1998, PRLDEF forged an alliance with the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, to create the PRLDEF Institute for Puerto Rican Policy and foster an interdisciplinary approach to advocacy. The strategic alliance lasted seven years and produced a number of critical reports including a ground-breaking report on the inequitable state of Latino judicial appointments and elections in New York. The alignment of policy analysis and legal expertise was also critical in establishing a Puerto Rican/Latino Voting Rights Network during the 2000 round of legislative redistricting
In the 1990s Ruben Franco and Juan Figueroa served as President & General Counsel.