2000-2008: New Needs and a New Name

In the 2000s, the U.S. Latino immigrant community had a growing need for legal assistance, and PRLDEF began a broader effort to incorporate immigrants’ rights work into the organization’s docket.

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Demographic trends in the Latino community also continued to signal shifts in the programmatic priorities of the organization. By 2000, Puerto Ricans were still the largest Latino group in New York City, but the City could only account for less than one quarter of all Puerto Ricans in the U.S. At the same time, the Puerto Rican population of Florida, mostly Central Florida, nearly doubled from 1990 to 200 with nearly half a million Puerto Ricans. The dispersal or re-concentration of Puerto Rican communities had been cemented while the increasing demand for legal services for Latino groups from other Caribbean, Central and Latin American countries continued to rise.

At the same time, the group reinforced its strong ties to Puerto Rico by getting involved in the fight to get the U.S. Navy to stop its live munitions practices on the island of Vieques.

Unifying the Fight for Peace in Vieques

PRLDEF and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., co-director of the environmental Law Clinic at Pace law School, sued the U.S. Navy in 2000, alleging violations of numerous environmental and civil rights laws on behalf of Vieques residents. The lawsuit demanded that the Navy clean up the degraded environment of the island, return the land to the local government, and give financial compensation for damages incurred by the local population. The lawsuit served a key role in unifying the numerous groups, both on the island and the mainland, opposing the Navy’s presence into a single, more effective coalition.

In 2003, due to increasing pressure from the lawsuit and outside groups, the U.S. Navy announced it would transfer the lands to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The suit, Waterkeeper Alliance v. Department of Defense was ultimately settled in late 2003 with the federal government’s agreement to satisfy certain obligations it had under the Environmental Protection Act.

In 2001, PRLDEF’s thirty-year effort to end racial quotas that favored white families in public housing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, finally came to an end. The New York City Housing Authority agreed to a settlement in Williamsburg Fair Housing Committee v. New York City Housing Authority that would promote priority admissions for non-white families in the housing developments.

Financial troubles which began in the late 1990s came full circle in the early 2000s, and the organization was on the brink of having to close its doors, until a former founder came back and reshaped the organization to make it economically and programmatically stronger than ever.

In 2003, Cesar A. Perales returned as President and General Counsel of PRLDEF, to rescue the organization from a severe financial crisis that led to a tremendous loss of operating funds. Staff members could only be paid for a half-time schedule, and donors were reluctant to give money.

Fighting for the rights of the undocumented

In time, PRLDEF rebuilt confidence with its funders, secured the money to get staff back full time, and sought to make the organization the aggressive litigating group it had been in its early days, this time, focusing on the rights of undocumented immigrants, in a number of cases that included:

  • Doe v. Mamaroneck, which protected the free speech rights of Latino day laborers who were experiencing racial profiling and police harassment while soliciting work in Long Island, NY. The suit was eventually successful and included a rare finding of intentional, unconstitutional discrimination against Latino workers in this category of cases.
  • Valdez v. Brookhaven which protected hundreds of Latinos from late night evictions pursuant to anti-immigrant local ordinances in Long Island, NY.
  • Aguilar v. ICE which challenges the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s right to perform warrantless raids on Latino homes in violation of the Fourth Amendment, again in Long Island, NY.
  • Milanes v. Chertoff which challenged three and four-year delays in the New York City regional office for naturalization applications to be processed, thus keeping large numbers of Latinos from becoming eligible to vote.

In August of 2006 PRLDEF filed a complaint challenging Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s “Illegal Immigration Relief Act.” The ordinance required landlords, business owners and other entities not to rent or provide goods or services to “illegal aliens” or risk loss of licenses and permits and $1,000 per day penalties. The ordinance also imposed an English-only policy for city government services. The Hazleton case was one of the earliest challenges to municipal anti-immigrant ordinances in the country. In July 2007, a federal court granted PRLDEF permanent injunctive relief, which enjoined the City of Hazleton from implementing any of the challenged ordinances. Lozano v. Hazleton ensured that Latino immigrants could rent homes and access public services. The decision will undoubtedly be cited by immigrant rights advocates for years to come.

More and more, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund had been transforming from a Puerto Rican-led organization that historically served a wide range of Latinos in the Northeast into a group that was becoming in its essence and governance a national pan-Latino civil rights organization. In 2008 the Board of Directors and the leadership of the organization agreed that the name “Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund” was no longer a proper reflection of the work that the group was doing. After a long, deliberate process, they decided to change the name to LatinoJustice PRLDEF. The new name reflected the evolving nature of the Latino community in the United States, the makeup of the organization's clients, and the cases it was undertaking while simultaneously reflecting the group’s origins in the Puerto Rican community.

At the end of the 2000s, LatinoJustice PRLDEF began a series of legal interventions in Central Florida as that Latino community began its enormous growth in size and stature. While some the initial engagements addressed immigrants rights, including the successful halt of anti-immigrant ordinances in Palm Bay, Florida, the bulk of these early interventions addressed the community’s growing political power. In Pérez Santiago v. Volusia County, in Florida, LatinoJustice PRLDEF successfully litigated to enforce compliance with bilingual election mandates under the Voting Rights Act.

Working with Young Latino Leaders

LatinoJustice PRLDEF also strengthened its work to prepare young Latinos to be the next leaders of their communities. In 2005 the organization launched LAWbound, a pipeline program for Latino college students who are interested in pursuing careers in the legal profession but may not have the resources and proper information to apply successfully. In 2008, the Youth Civic Engagement Network was formed to help young leaders take part in the fight for civil rights, become an agent for social change and help connect people to information they need to be active in social justice.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Juan Figueroa and Cesar Perales served as President & General Counsel.

Click here to read about LatinoJustice PRLDEF's most recent work.

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