Padilla, Jose 2016

Had 35 year legal career with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) advocating for the rights of California’s farm worker and rural poverty communities. Served on boards of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and NLADA.

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Details

Storyteller: Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2016-11-10
Where relates to: California and National
Topics: Agriculture, Civil legal aid: General, Farm workers, Immigration, Migrant labor, and Undocumented immigrants
Collection: CNEJL

Bibliographic info

Last modified: 2022-04-13 07:38
Length: 1:48:47

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Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Jose Padilla
Conducted by Alan Houseman
Nov. 10, 2016

Alan Houseman:
This is an interview with Jose Padilla. He is the executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, as we will call it from now on. This interview was held on Thursday, November 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library.

Alan Houseman:
Jose, let’s begin by an overview of your life, essentially. Where you were born, where you grew up, where you went to high school, college, law school, and the jobs you’ve held. Then we’ll come back and dwell all about the legal aid work.

Jose Padilla:
I was born and raised in rural California. I was born and raised in a county called Imperial, which happens to be the last county that was formed in California. That county was formed having broken away from San Diego. It’s an agricultural county, so I come from immigrant family and families. My grandparents on both sides of the family were farm workers. They came from, on the paternal side, Mexican farm workers from Central Mexico. From my mother’s side, they were workers from the southern tip of Baja California. It was called Baja California Sur. They left Mexico in the 1920s. In 1922, the Rial family left and arrived in Imperial County. In 1925, the Padilla family had left Guanajuato and ended up in Imperial County.

Jose Padilla:
So my background comes from that, coming from farm worker parents who migrated from that county up and down California. My father was a migrant farm worker. He joined the migrant stream in the late ’30s, early ’40s. As a young man, he went into World War II. As an immigrant, he fought in World War II. He was in India, Burma, China. Then it turns out that when he returned back to California, he said, “I’m going to leave the picking fields.” Why? Because upon returning, they offered him citizenship. Dad was able to then become a citizen, and then said, “Now I’m going to get a good job.” So he became a truck driver.

Jose Padilla:
What was significant about that is that he was then able to take our family out of the migrant stream. All my cousins and all my aunts, uncles, they all continued being part of the farm worker communities there migrating. But we settled down. Because we settled down, me and my siblings were able to then get schooling, and then were able to take advantage of that. Because of that farm worker background, we knew where we came from. We knew we were from working families. We knew we were from immigrant families.

Jose Padilla:
What happened is I did well in school. There was nothing I didn’t do in school that I didn’t do well. So I was blessed to get into an elite university. I went to Stanford University. I was the first Latino coming out of my high school, Brawley High School, to go to Stanford. Because I had been successful in school, I went as a pre-med thinking I was going to be a doctor. Unfortunately, 80% of the students who go to Stanford are pre-med. Needless to say, after two years, I decided that my level of science was not going to carry me through to medical education, because I didn’t love the science of it. At the end of the day, I said, “You know what? I’m going to finish, get my degree at the university, and then take some time off and think about it.”

Jose Padilla:
What happened was I graduated and took a year off, and I worked with a migrant nonprofit called Campesinos Unidos. Campesinos Unidos was one of those poverty programs that was providing preschool education to migrant farm worker children. The idea is that you’re prepared for school so that they can succeed. I spent that one year at that nonprofit. It was then that I decided that I was going to go into law school, and decided that was what I was going to pursue.

Jose Padilla:
Why? During my university years — well, you’re talking about high school in the late ’60s, and my university years, ’70 to ’74. That was movement time. As a young student at Stanford, being exposed to the anti-Vietnam War movement, being exposed to the farm worker movement, and being exposed to the civil rights movement impacted my political mindset. The question was, how could any of us who were so influenced by those movements convert that political education into civil rights work?

Jose Padilla:
It so happened that Cesar Chavez was closer to the family than I knew. When I met Cesar, he recognized our name. Our family had always said, when they were growing up in Brawley, because Cesar Chavez had spent some time in Brawley, my aunts had become close friends. They said, “No, the Padilla family used to migrate with the Chavez family.” So I knew that there was that in the family, there was a connection to the farm worker movement.

Jose Padilla:
I was one of those people, also, that was always interested in speaking to my elders. In speaking to them, they would always talk about agriculture and the labor movement in Imperial County. They would talk about the strikes in my hometown. They would talk about how they were broken up when the Mexican workers tried to unionize. So I had a good sense of that.

Jose Padilla:
Also, growing up in Brawley I also had a good sense of segregation. Brawley is one of those little towns that’s divided by railroad tracks. We knew that the white folk lived on the west side of town, and the poor Mexican, black, and poor white, we lived on the east side of town. I was lucky that my parents in the fourth grade sent me to Catholic school, and essentially I went to an integrated school. Really that was behind my being able to succeed in high school. But it’s all to say that those early life lessons around knowing that your family is part of that local labor history, knowing that you came from a segregated place, allowed me, when I got involved with the movements, to think, “I want to make a difference. I want to make a difference because I know where I come from.”

Jose Padilla:
Listening to my elders was always important, and I remember when I left high school. Leaving high school, the family had a celebration, because I was the first Latino to go to Stanford. All the family was there. My grandmother was the only one that appeared to be not having a good time and questioning the whole event. Then she asked me to come over, and she wanted to explain something to me. To me, it ended up being something pretty profound. She said that my grandfather had grown up in that little rural town since the ’20s, and he was a person with three years of schooling in Mexico. But in that little town, he was considered an educated man — “un hombre educado” as they say. An hombre educado means somebody who’s wise, so it’s about wisdom. She said, “I understand you’re going to an important school. But that’s all you’re going to. You’re going to get schooled. It doesn’t mean that you will ever be an educated man.” Again, she was trying to teach me that I should be a little more humble about what was going on.

Jose Padilla:
The second thing she said was kind of a little funny. She said, “Let me tell you this.” She goes, “I don’t care how important you become in your future life, how many important friends you make. Don’t ever forget you always carry,” and then she said in Spanish, “You carry a cactus on your forehead.” Honestly, I didn’t understand that. I said, “Grandma, thank you for teaching me these life things, but I don’t understand this cactus thing.” She says, “Where do we live? What’s this community about?” So I understood the theme and I said, “We live in a desert.” Then she said, “What’s the common plant?” I said, “Okay. It’s a cactus.”

Jose Padilla:
“That’s what you come from. You come from common plant and common people.” All to say that I then realized when I was making my choice to go into law that I wanted to do something for common people with that elite education that I received. Because not only had I been at Stanford, the second thing was I got into Berkeley Law School, UC Berkeley, a very prestigious law school. I told myself that I was going to give five years of my career to rural legal service, because that’s the community that raised me.

Jose Padilla:
You fast forward, so I graduate law school. In law school, I had worked with a legal center working with immigrant communities there in San Francisco, [inaudible]. When I was in my first year, I worked with the United Farm Workers on the border with something called the Martin Luther King Center. We were just helping farm workers right on the border coming over and working in agriculture in our county. Then my second year, I worked with CRLA. I was just trying to get experience with law as it was practiced in that county. There was no ambition to this. I just wanted to give my five years in that community.

Jose Padilla:
When it was time for me to look for work, the UFW, United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, their union said, “You want to be an attorney for us, you have to work in La Paz. That’s where our legal department is.” That’s in Kern County. It’s in Central Valley. I told them, “I want to go work there in Imperial County. Is that possible?” They said, “No.” Then I went to CRLA and they said, “Yes. Nobody wants to work in CRLA in Imperial Valley.” Because they realized that I was local, they said, “You’ve got that job.” That’s how I entered legal services, having prepared myself to want to serve working people. Because that’s the way I had been influenced by those farm worker communities.

Jose Padilla:
[missing sentence(s) due to fire alarm test]… idea of vulnerability in front of me. So when we look at program, what the initiatives are is identifying those special populations in rural California that are especially vulnerable as poverty populations.

Jose Padilla:
We have a special project called the Indigenous Farm Worker Project or Initiative. As a legal aid, we have a lot of firsts. The first state-wide farm worker legal aid is an example. But we were also the first, for example, to serve indigenous workers, even though we know that those indigenous workers are in Florida, they’re in North Carolina, they’re everywhere where crops are picked. But we were the first ones to address them as a distinct community. In the farm worker community, immigrant workers coming from indigenous communities in Mexico suffer differently.

Jose Padilla:
So when CRLA realized that one quarter of California agriculture was picked by indigenous workers who didn’t speak, obviously, English, but who also didn’t speak Spanish well and were speaking indigenous languages, we realized that it was a special population that we had to address. We then end up becoming the first legal aid to have community workers who speak indigenous languages. Right now we have four of those outreach workers. Three of them speak Mixtec, Mixtec [inaudible] and Mixtec [inaudible], and a fourth who speaks Trique.

Jose Padilla:
This phenomenon is not only in California. You find it in other parts of the country. I was just reading an article in New York Times recently about the agriculture in the northern part of New York. They are struggling with how you serve these indigenous populations that are doing the ag in northern New York State. But we learned that way back. We were open to the idea to provide special services and outreach to those communities, again, because we had as part of CRLA’s philosophy to serve the poorer among the poor, the more discriminated among the poor, and this community was more discriminated. This community, for example, will not approach somebody like me, because I remind those indigenous workers of Mexicans in Mexico who discriminate against them in Mexico because they’re “Indian.” So when they come to this country and they meet their Mexican supervisors, they’re not going to trust the Mexican supervisor. They’re not going to trust the Mexican boss. And they’re not going to trust the people trying to serve them, because we’re part of the group that oppressed them in Mexico. So we, through the indigenous worker, have been able to serve the indigenous communities well in California.

Jose Padilla:
We have another project that serves farm worker women. Among the farm worker community, women suffer differently. We were the first to do sexual harassment work, because women in the fields are especially vulnerable because their bosses are male. They’re Mexican farm labor contractors. Because they’re in power positions, they’re able to take advantage of the women.

Jose Padilla:
So quite a number of years ago, the federal government approached me, and they wanted to serve farm workers. They didn’t know what exactly they should do. So we set up a meeting and they spoke with our community workers, who told them that if they wanted to do something in agriculture, they should do something to defend the rights of farm worker women who were being sexually harassed and accosted and raped in the fields. The federal government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the regional lawyer Bill [Tomajo?] in San Francisco said, “Okay, Jose. We’ve got the priority that you’ve put in front of us. Bring us the first case.”

Jose Padilla:
So we ended up having a case of Blanca Elfaro who walked into the Salinas office. It was a $600 case of a woman who had left a Japanese ag company. She was owed two weeks of work, wanted $600. She comes in. In the interview that we do with her, Miss Elfaro gets very upset and says, “I thought you were going to help me with my owed wages, my $600. If you want to help somebody and you care so much about the company, why don’t you go back and help the women there who are exchanging sex to keep their jobs?”

Jose Padilla:
That was the sexual harassment case that walked in. That $600 case became a $1.8 million case because of the realization that all the women that were being mistreated. But the federal government came in and did that. I say that because within the legal services community, we were the first one to approach that. But the federal government then took that type of advocacy into Oregon, into Washington. Very recently last year … I think it was last year. It may have been even sooner than that. One of the farm worker programs in Florida won a $17 million case for sexual harassment. We recently this year, four months ago, we won a $1 million case representing two asparagus pickers who were also raped in the fields. Last year we won a $1 million case, same with another woman raped who was picking berries.

Jose Padilla:
The point there is that these are special populations, special issues, and we do special initiatives to address those. We’ve also been the first legal aid to do LGBT work. Because again, gender discrimination is also important. Special population in rural California. That led to that initiative. Those are initiatives based on special populations. We also do initiatives, like other legal aids do, with very focused substantive work. Like many legal aids, we do fair housing discrimination in rural California. Like some legal aids, we do foreclosure. It’s a special project. We have special advocates doing that type of advocacy.

Jose Padilla:
In education, we have a special initiative, the project called School to Nowhere, where we focus on school children who are discriminated against in the expulsion and suspension practices of schools. In many rural schools, African-American students, Latino students, suffer a disproportionate amount of expulsions and suspensions compared to their representation in those schools. So we have a project that addresses that issue called School to Nowhere in the area of education. We have another special project that deals with health disparities. A lot of legal aids don’t do rural health. They do health disparity work. We do a rural health disparity project.

Jose Padilla:
And the last project that we have that’s different is something we call the Community Equity Initiative. In rural California, you can talk about rural poverty generically, but you can also talk about a special poverty that exists there, and it’s poverty suffered in unincorporated spaces. There are, in the Central Valley, I’d say maybe half a million people living not in town, but on the edge of town or in agricultural pockets where you might find five-trailer camps, ten-trailer camps. The idea is, how do you address that poverty? We have been able to address that poverty by this project. You deal with anything from dilapidated housing to actually these families not even having access to clean water. For farm workers to send their kids to school and the schools cannot provide them clean water in this day and age is unheard of, but that’s part of unincorporated poverty.

Jose Padilla:
When we turn around, the services that we give are from, at the one end, the core services like other legal services programs. Then we have program that provides special outreach and services and legal education and advocacy to special populations. Then we have substantive special projects. That’s the way we’re structured.

Alan Houseman:
Yeah, that was very helpful. Because what it did was also describe not just the way you operate, but much of the kinds of work you do. I think that gives a real flavor for the kinds of work that CRLA has done historically and is doing now. Could you give me a couple of examples of some real accomplishments that CRLA has had in its substantive work.

Jose Padilla:
During my tenure?

Alan Houseman:
Yeah. I’ve talked to Cruz-

Jose Padilla:
So you know about the short-handled hoe. That’s why I brought the T-shirt, just in case people forgot that. The idea for CRLA, like some legal aids, is not only to provide basic services, but to use the basic services as a platform to see if there are systemic issues and systemic problems that can arise from a basic poverty condition. We’ve kept that.

Jose Padilla:
In my tenure, I guess if I was to point to things that I think have been very important, I think foremost for me is in the area of immigration. People don’t realize that the last federal amnesty program in this country was in 1986. It’s called the Immigration Reform and Control Act. There were more than three million people amnestied under that program. People don’t know that CRLA crafted the provisions for the farm worker part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. We were able to amnesty more than a million people into this country, or legalize their status in this country. That’s not part of the legacy that we speak a lot about. It happened, again, in a very happenstance way.

Jose Padilla:
Congressman Howard Berman, who had worked as a California legislator, was working on immigration reform at the national level. Because we were not involved in national issues, it was not part of our advocacy. Mark Schott, a labor lobbyist with CRLA, had worked with Berman previously. Howard Berman informs CRLA’s labor lobbyist that there’s a moment where immigration reform will pass. Because up until ’86, a lot of the advocacy groups, the activist groups, both from the right and the left, were stopping immigration reform by attaching provisions that neither side could live with. So these laws with all of these extra provisions found opposition from the right and the left, and it would kill the immigration reform. Congressman Berman informed the lobbyist that the congressman who wanted this change to happen had already realized that that was why it wasn’t ending up passing. He said, “This is the moment when it’s going to pass. We’ve already figured out how we can do it.”

Jose Padilla:
So Mr. Schott calls me up and says, “Jose, Congressman Berman says that this is the moment when we can help farm workers.” In thinking about it, I said, “You know what? If you are telling me that we can help undocumented farm workers in California by you doing work in Washington, I approve it.” It was the first and only time that I had ever made a decision like that. Mr. Schott worked with Congressman Berman and with Delores Huerta, and the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed. We were able to amnesty, through the big law, more than three million people, but for farm workers, more than a million. I will time and time again meet attorneys, I’ve met writers, I’ve met different people. I ask them about their story. Many of them will say, “Oh, my parents came in with that 1986 immigration law.” I always think we never realized at the time the impact it was going to have in the future generations by allowing families to stabilize that way. In my tenure, I consider that decision to send somebody to work with Congress to be able to do that.

Jose Padilla:

BREAK

Jose Padilla:
In terms of other work that I’ve done, I haven’t thought too much about it. I was going to talk about CRLA generically. But yes, when I look at what I’ve done, I’ve talked about it in terms of the substantive services that I mentioned a little while ago. The idea that legal aid lawyers should have, as part of their practice, the defense of women who have been discriminated against by gender — that whole sexual harassment of farm worker women project I mentioned — I consider that part of what came out of my leadership. When the cases come in, we already have enough work to do. But the director has to make decisions about taking into consideration whether there’s new areas of practice that you haven’t done, that even though you think you are a good legal aid organization, if not an exemplary legal aid organization, you can do better. You can develop parts of your practice that address even more egregious issues than you have.

Jose Padilla:
The formation of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment as part of CRLA’s practice, I consider that part of my legacy because I was able to identify the need — working with the government — to direct resources that way, and to have our lawyers trained to defend and litigate that work. The sexual harassment part of our practice I consider to be part of the leadership that I have exercised over that period of time. That’s another example.

Jose Padilla:
The other example is the indigenous communities. We were the first legal aid to address the needs of indigenous farm workers. Other legal aids are doing it. Again, it works in the same way. The director sees an issue, raises questions of advocacy, and then provides resources for that. The same thing with the LGBT work that we’re doing. In a lot of rural places, parents are being educated to be accepting of their children who are LGBT. We educate people in the schools. Because children and kids are being bullied because of whether people identify them as lesbian, gay, in schools and they’re bullied.

Jose Padilla:
That part of our work, again, I consider part of my leadership. Because when it came into CRLA, it came in like this. It came in as a farm worker problem. The supervisor of a farm worker crew in the Salinas area identifies a gay man in the crew, a gay worker, and says, “Any of you in the crew who throw that gay man into the canal gets a case of beer.” So the crew threw the man into the canal. The man walks into our office and says, “Can you do anything?” And we treat it as a hate crime. I told my staff, “We need to take that incident and step back and use it as an opportunity for us to educate our farm worker community about that kind of discrimination.” It’s cultural. We grew up with it. You don’t talk about those issues in Mexican families. But then when I see it in the workforce, I know what that discrimination is about.

Jose Padilla:
For me as a director, I could say, “We can help that man by just filing a complaint with EEOC and leaving it at that.” But I said, “No, we’re going to step back and we’re going to treat it as an initiative. We’re going to educate farm workers and rural poor communities about what it is to be discriminated against because you’re LGBT.” I would also look at that as part of the legacy that I’ve left behind, those different practices. Because I then see other legal aids practicing that kind of work. We’ve trained lawyers at TRLA to that kind of work. We’ve trained lawyers in Georgia. Georgia approached us. They wanted to do that kind of advocacy. Once you realize you’re influencing the type of advocacy that other legal aids do, because those same issues that we see are happening in these other places, that’s part of the leadership that I feel that we’ve been able to exercise during the my tenure as director of CRLA.

Alan Houseman:
Historically, CRLA has been highlighted by Governor and then President Reagan, by other leaders in California, and more recently by the Legal Services Corporation. I just want you to talk a little bit about a couple of the LSC or OIG investigations of you, any recent congressional investigations. You and I could go on forever, because I’ve been involved in some of these with you. But just to get a little bit out on the table about what they were and where we are and how they got resolved.

Jose Padilla:
Interestingly, we all at CRLA would’ve hoped that the politics around the whole initial investigations when the governor of California came after CRLA — we always had hoped that it was going to be just a part of that early history. But what I’ve come to realize is a couple of things. One is that at some point when you’re addressing poverty and trying to change its conditions, it becomes political. It is a political issue. When you press advocacy aggressively against powerful interests, it becomes a political issue. The same way that the [inaudible] CRLA that pushed aggressive farm worker advocacy, upsetting the Farm Bureau … That part of the history ends up being part of my history.

Jose Padilla:
I ended up starting to do advocacy against the dairy industry. People don’t realize that California is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, dairy state in the United States. We had spun off another project … That’s part of the legacy. I helped support environment justice within our community. I think we’re the first legal aid to look at environmental racism as an issue for legal aid.

Jose Padilla:
We started a project with a gentleman by the name of Luke Cole, who, very well-known in the environmental justice community as a very visionary leader. When Mr. Cole comes into CRLA, he engages our lawyers to get involved with environmental justice and environmental racism. We bring the first environmental racism case from the legal aid community in this country. Ultimately, we end up spinning him off into a special project called the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment that does environmental justice work all over the country. They do it internationally. But it came out of that project that we started many years ago.

Jose Padilla:
Mr. Cole, as part of that project, decides to go after the dairy industry in the Central Valley. Very powerful. It’s supposed to be the ugly stepchild of agriculture, because their conditions of dairy is worse than conditions that you will find in other parts of the industry. He starts stopping dairies from coming into the Central Valley. He doesn’t work for me. He’s doing it through his project. But it so happened that he was renting space from me.

Jose Padilla:
At that time, it was a project of the CRLA Foundation. We had spun it off that way because it was becoming a little too political for us. From there, he continues that work, stops dairies. The dairy industry, Western United Dairymen, goes to LSC asks John McKay to investigate CRLA, because they thought that we were violating the corporate integrity regulation. Why? Because we had a nonprofit in our offices who was doing this prohibited work.

Jose Padilla:
So we get cleared. The congressman that had done that … I’m trying to think. It’s Congressman Bill Thomas that I think called for that LSC investigation. When we were cleared, the Western United Dairymen then went to a Democratic congressman, Cal Dooley, asking for us to be investigated even though we had already been cleared by LSC.

Jose Padilla:
By that time, we had begun doing advocacy on behalf of dairy workers even though we had not until that time been focused on that. It just so happened that we began that advocacy at the same time that the dairy industry was beginning to look at the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. So we end up being identified as part of that. The second investigation happens in that way, that the Inspector General decides to come in and also look at the way we work with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. That becomes a whole separate kind of an investigation.

Jose Padilla:
By that time, we had begun doing advocacy on behalf of dairy workers. Even though we had not until that time been focused on that, it just so happened that we began that advocacy at the same time that the dairy industry was beginning to look at the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. So we end up being identified as part of that.

Jose Padilla:
The second investigation happens in that way. The Inspector General decides to come in and also look at the way we work with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. That becomes a whole separate kind of an investigation. So the Inspector General comes in and looks at the issue. Cal Dooley comes in and says, “My constituency wants CRLA to be audited, investigated, because we think that they violated corporate integrity regulation.” So they come in and they look at that.

Jose Padilla:
As part of that investigation, they end up charging us with having violated the corporate integrity regulation. Why? Because they found that when we rented to this nonprofit, it just so happened that that nonprofit periodically would come in with late rent, and we were never charged interest on late rent. In the normal course of business, a landlord will charge you interest on late rent. CRLA didn’t do that. We’ve never done it. We’re not in the business of this. That was described as an indirect subsidy. Not a subsidy of restricted work, but an indirect subsidy of restricted work. So we were charged with the violation of the corporate regulation 1610 as part of that IG investigation.

Jose Padilla:
The IG then becomes a big issue. They issue a report. All of a sudden, you’re starting to see press in the rural newspapers that CRLA has violated federal government corporate regulations. It looks as if we’re misusing money. So the politic that came from that was a demand for CRLA to be defunded. The politic that came from that was that we were then invited to testify in front of a subcommittee that funds legal services. I never forgot receiving the letter from Congressman James Sensenbrenner inviting me to a subcommittee hearing on legal services. I literally read the letter, called lobbyist Don Saunders and asked him whether I could deny the invitation. I said, “He’s inviting me. I don’t care to go.” He said, “Jose, if you do not accept the invitation, you will be likely subpoenaed to testify, so you need to do that.”

Jose Padilla:
I think then, having fought off the effort to defund us, we end up being forced to testify in front of the subcommittee that funds legal services. I guess it’s from the House side. Congressman Chris Cannon was the congressman who was doing that. The interesting thing about that was that Marty Glick, who had been one of the early lawyers at CRLA and who continuously defended us in all of these audits, becomes my counsel there and prepared me well.

Jose Padilla:
We weren’t exactly sure exactly how this was going to go. I think it may have been the first time a legal aid director’s been forced to testify in front of committee. I always say that I was the one and only in legal services to do that. But at the end, it ended up being that they were looking at that corporate integrity issue. The thing that was interesting was in that set of exchanges with the congressman, the congressman had asked me to explain how I had come about violating this corporate integrity regulation. I explained to the congressman that as a director who had come from those communities served by legal aid, that it was one of my responsibilities to protect that funding source. I was a steward of that money. So I would be the last director to want to violate any regulations.

Jose Padilla:
I told the congressman, “I would consider myself a good director if the government came in and looked at two years’ worth of my funding, $20 million, and they ended up finding a $600 problem.” The congressman and the other congressmen on the committee, they couldn’t understand what I was explaining. I said, “Congressman, if we would’ve charged late interest those two years for the late rent from the CRLA Foundation, 12% for all that late rent would’ve come up to $600. That’s why I’m here testifying. After the government looked at $20 million, I’m testifying because they found a $600 problem.” The congressman couldn’t believe it. I remember the congressman from Massachusetts asks the question, “Mr. Padilla, how much money did it cost you to fly in?”

Jose Padilla:
“$1,000.”

Jose Padilla:
“You flew in for $1,000. It cost you $1,000 and we have you here for a $600 problem?”

Jose Padilla:
I said, “Yes, Congressman.” That was sort of the result of all of that politics of the dairy industry coming in and wanting to use its political influence and political power to stop the effective advocacy that we’re doing. Realize that we were bringing case after case for wage theft where we’re winning anything from $50,000 to $250,000. We had a half a million dollar wage case against the dairy, and they pushed back, but they pushed back politically.

Jose Padilla:
After that testimony in Congress, the next phase of that was that one of my lawyers ended up turning over confidential internal information to the Inspector General through another congressman in the Central Valley. There’s a Republican congressman from a dairy family by the name of Devin Nunes. Devin Nunes’s name surfaced when the politicians were asking for my defunding. I never heard about him. I forced one of my lawyers to bring a civil rights case against the City of Modesto in the Central Valley, not realizing that that lawyer, not wanting to do that case for personal reasons, ends up going to the Inspector General with inside information, inside emails, inside communications, turning them over, showing that allegedly we had solicited a client [led? inaudible] litigation.

Jose Padilla:
Again, it was around 2005, right around that period. I never forgot being contacted the Inspector General saying, “We’re going to visit your office in Modesto.” It was around Christmas time. I asked why. He said, “We can’t tell you.” They were going to bring in a group of investigators.

Jose Padilla:
We immediately lawyered up. Cruz Reynoso volunteered to be one of those lawyers. We didn’t know what they were looking for. We didn’t want any of our staff to be talking about issues that might divulge client information and confidential information, so we wanted them to have counsel if they wanted counsel. So we made counsel available. The Inspector General shows up. As they always do, they take an audit and then they expand it. By expanding it, they make inquiries about 10 subject areas, but it doesn’t allow you to know what they’re looking for. It could be any one of those things. So we engage that process not knowing that they had the internal information and what they were looking for was the solicitation of a client in that big civil rights case that we had brought.

Jose Padilla:
At the end of the day, what ends up happening is we end up thinking that we’re complying. They make a demand of client information. I think it was three years’ worth of client information. No reasoning why. We refused to turn it over because of client confidentiality, privacy laws in California. Like any other law firm, we have to protect our client interest. At the end of the day, the investigation happens. The report is issued. Again, I call it a clandestine stealth investigation, because throughout the whole investigation, we didn’t know what they were looking for. We didn’t know what allegations there were. It was all a secret.

Jose Padilla:
I was speaking to a student group at Stanford University explaining the politics of some of our work. A student goes online and raises his hand and says, “Mr. Padilla, your report is out.” The congressional report had been issued that day, and that’s how we found out that, again, they had found us to be in violation, that we had solicited a client, but also that we had not cooperated, because I had not turned over that three years’ worth of data. So not only did we end up with that issue coming out of the report and some of the issues there, LSC addressed 99% of those issues. But the issue that they could not address was the issue of us not cooperating with the audit of the Inspector General.

Jose Padilla:
At that point, I went to Congressman Berman, who had helped me in the past with some of this, and asked him whether he could help. He said he couldn’t, because he couldn’t interfere with an Inspector General audit. But he asked me whether there was anything else he might be helpful, because he had been very helpful in a lot of other things when we had political issues like that. I said, “You tell the Inspector General to use their subpoena power if they want to address this issue.” And he did. Little did I know that they were going to do that.

Jose Padilla:
What happens next is that I get hit with a subpoena, and we refuse to recognize it. Then they go to the U.S. Department of Justice to execute. That’s how we ended up in a case, the United States v. CRLA, because we refused to turn over that information. Being advised again by Arnold & Porter. It was Howard Rice at the time. Marty Glick and a group of their lawyers start defending us. Over that litigation, they must have spent $3 to $4 million in pro bono defense. But it ends up being CRLA claiming that we should be able to, under state law, protect our client private information, even if there’s a federal audit. As you well know, it ends up being litigated there in federal court and we lose it. Goes to appeal, we lose it. At the end of the day, we end up turning over, I don’t know, more than 30,000 pieces of data to the Inspector General when we had lost that case, because we were not going to take it to the Supreme Court.

Jose Padilla:
All of that loss of resource, coming from the dairy industry wanting to bring political influence to stop us from doing that advocacy, ends up with the LSC audit, the two congressional audits, and then the stealth audit, and then end up in litigation. I don’t know, Alan, how long that case lasted. Four or five years? And at the end of the day, we turn over what ends up being eight-year-old data. We thought at the end of the day, what are they going to charge CRLA with data that’s eight years old? At the end of the day, we never found out what they wanted the data for.

Jose Padilla:
But for all of that, it becomes another part of being a legal aid director. But I will say that very few legal aids end up doing that as part of their history in legal services. I look at it in the same way that I think Cruz and that generation would’ve looked at it. When you are aggressive and you’re successful and you take on industry-wide advocacy like that and it’s effective, you’re going to upset somebody. At the end of that day, I spent, like I said — for maybe five years — 80% of my time working on the defense of CRLA around the dairy industry thinking that they would stop our very successful dairy advocacy.

Jose Padilla:
We ended up, with one of those dairy cases, actually going to the California Supreme Court. In the last five, six years, we’ve had two cases in the California Supreme Court, one on behalf of strawberry workers out of the southern central coast, and another representing dairy workers out of the Stockton area. The Arias case ended up being argued for the California Supreme Court, but it came out of that dairy advocacy.

Jose Padilla:
I think a very powerful symbol of the success of legal services is when a dairy worker can take their case and have it argued in front of the highest court in the state. That is what legal aid can do when it’s representing the poor the way the wealthy are represented. I would look at that as a very symbolic thing.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve described the challenges, the successes, of your work with CRLA. What I’d like to do now is turn to some of the other work you’ve done as part of your career that relates, of course, to your legal aid work. Let’s start first with NLADA. You have been very active at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and you’ve served in leadership roles. Describe a little bit about that and why that’s important.

Jose Padilla:
When I first became director of CRLA, I realized that because of the huge responsibility of just running that kind of a legal aid, I was going to only invest my time on the program. I honestly thought that I was going to do five years as CRLA director, exhaust myself, and then go on to something else. It was because I had seen that the previous director, Alberto, who had been there for seven years. At the end of his tenure, I looked at how difficult it had been for him. I thought, “I’m not going to wait ’til seven years and suffer it that way.” So I said, “Five years I’m going to work and then go on to something else.”

Jose Padilla:
But then what I realized is that it’s not like that. It’s just, you go from issues to issues. But at the end of fifth year, I would step back and I said, “I want to now start getting involved in other parts of legal aid or other parts of our work.” For example, I decided that one of the first things I was going to do is i was going to get involved with the National Campaign for Human Development, which is the arm of the Catholic Church that funds social justice. Somebody had recommended me to that — the idea of providing funds for social justice work throughout the country as part of that. I thought, “It’s related to CRLA work, social justice from a religious space.” So that’s how I first began.

Jose Padilla:
I looked at National Legal Aid & Defender Association. It was a national organization that defended my interests. But I also knew that some of the leadership there from California, who I respected highly, Ramon Arias. When I would go to the National Legal Aid conferences, I’d say, “Oh, look. On the board, there’s a Latino, and that’s Ramon Arias.” There were a couple of Latinos there. You want to see the diversity in that when you go to these national conferences. But it was not going to be a part of me. In that participation coming to these conferences, Ramon invited me to get involved with PAG, with the Project Advisory Group, right? So I said, “Okay. I can get involved with that.” So I ended up … I don’t know. I think we get elected to it.

Alan Houseman:
Yeah, you do.

Jose Padilla:
I became a part of it, volunteered to put myself out there. So I became a part of that, thinking that that was going to be my participation. The issue of the merger came into play. When they were going to merge the two, the question was, what was going to be the surviving board?

Jose Padilla:
There was another Latino involved at that time, and I’m not going to remember his name. Ernesto … Sanchez from Idaho Legal Services.

Alan Houseman:
Yes, Sanchez.

Jose Padilla:
Ernesto Sanchez and Ramon Arias were on the NLADA board. I looked at it, but here they were two very experienced Latino advocates on that board. In the merged board, I assumed that they were going to continue. The boards merge, and all of a sudden when we look at the list, Ernesto is not on that list, and neither is Ramon. I’m the Latino that ends up being on that first board, at least on that first list. I remember thinking, “Here you have the most experienced Latino advocates, having given all this to the NLADA board before, and here I am, inexperienced, coming from the PAG side. There’s no way I should be the person on the merged board.” So I take, with all due respect, Clint Lyons aside and I say, “Clint, this can’t happen. I am not going to play that role for you. If you put me on that board, I’m resigning, and I’m going to be recommending that Ramon or Ernesto becomes part of your board.” Because I can’t understand how these very knowledgeable NLADA people don’t end up in this merged board. Clint and I, we’re friends, and he said, “Jose, you’re not going to do that. Don’t do that. I have another potential board member who is willing to step aside and will allow one of the two to become that second Latino on the board.”

Jose Padilla:
That’s how Ramon Arias ended up being the second Latino on the NLADA board, because it wasn’t supposed to happen. It was the last thing that I expected, to be part of NLADA, the board in the structure. Here I end up, in that merger, becoming one of the two. Ramon Arias then becomes the first Latino chairperson of the NLADA board. Then I become the second Latino chairman of the NLADA board. Those are honors that, for me, are so important because of what NLADA has been. Because when I step back and look at the 100 years of the civil rights advocacy and where it came from, and they continue to do that defense of the criminal defense and the civil defense side of law practice in our low-income communities, and it’s still robust, still strong, still defending … For me to come in and be the director of that organization …

Jose Padilla:
At the time, we were looking at it as the history being African-American and Anglo lawyers creating this entity to be able to do this incredible work for the African-American community. All of a sudden, we come in and we bring in the same kind of experienced representation from the Latino community side. For me, it was such an honor to look at the history and then to know that you were a part, and even to have been a part of it at this part of that legacy.

Jose Padilla:
I was so honored when President Obama was elected in 2008, because I was the board chair who announced it at the conference. Because at the opening plenary, the chair of the board makes a statement. So here I was, a Latino talking about the first African-American president of the United States, as part of NLADA. I’m not going to say it’s an irony, but it was such an honor for me to be able to do that. But again, it’s playing that role where you become a voice for the legal aid programs. It’s such an incredible thing to do as a member of that board. I always considered that as one of my most important involvements as a leader, if not within the legal services community, just in the work that I’ve done, is to have joined that board. Then to have been chosen as a chairperson, will always be very special to me in the leadership that I’ve done.

Jose Padilla:
It continues to do so. I did it because I realized how important it was for me to understand how it was that we survived. When you go through the political audits and investigation that we did, CLASP support was always there from you and Linda Perle. Don Saunders, as a lobbyist supporting me out there trying to figure out what this national politic is about, was always supportive of me. As we were going through all of that, we always had the national support. So for me to be able to, I guess, through my leadership, give back some of that, realizing how important it was for us at CRLA, was part of the decision for me to join and continue.

Jose Padilla:
The other part of it was that I also realized that politics was going to continue, and that at some point, farm worker national politic was going to continue around this. I felt that it was important for CRLA to be part of the discussion around some of those issues that were going to happen at the national level. For me, even though I never intended to be part of that, once I ended up joining, it was very clear to me that it was very important for me to continue.

Alan Houseman:
You are also a leader in another organization that I helped found, actually, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC).

Jose Padilla:
That’s right. That was interesting, because I remember when you were forming that. A lot of us who have been in this a long time realized that not all legal aid programs embrace the practice of civil rights or issues of racial bias and racial issues within the legal aid practice. But I’ve been one of those directors. I realized that very early on, that for rural advocacy, we were the group that brought in rural civil rights to rural California.

Jose Padilla:
In realizing that one purpose of PRRAC was to bring together advocates from the civil rights community with practitioners from the legal aid community. I always, in my practice, saw those as one. But to be part of an entity that was doing that nationally was very intriguing. I remember when you had approached me about an interest, it was very natural for me to say yes.

Jose Padilla:
I think Phyllis Holman was the other person that you approached to be a director. So we joined that board as being part of a legal services voice on that. It has become an incredible voice for that. One of the things that was difficult is for me to sort of bring that back to NLADA. To me, I joined it through my relationship with you, as being part of NLADA and understanding the importance of the Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Then becoming a part of that was very important. But I never linked it back to NLADA and NLADA issues.

Jose Padilla:
But that work has been, for me, very important, because it continues to enlighten me about the racial justice work that I should be doing in California. So it’s been incredible being a member of that board. I’ve been the vice chair for a number of years, with no interest of being the chairperson of that. But no, it’s been also an honor, but sort of another form of continuing to serve the community. But it’s a little different group, working with people from LDF and some of these leaders that bring U.S. Supreme Court cases around racial justice issues. It’s just incredible, the group there. Chester Hartman and the housing leadership that he’s brought, to be able to work with him and some of the leadership has been great.

Jose Padilla:
But again, it’s another one of those roles that you end up not only contributing to, but you’re learning from. For me, the self-interest is, how do I take some of that practice from other racial justice or justice groups and bring them back to CRLA? That’s been very, very helpful for me, too.

Alan Houseman:
As your resume, which is part of this, indicates, you’ve been awarded a number of awards. I wonder, what of those many awards do you think is the ones you value the most? We have the list on your resume. I don’t need to go through all of them, although they’re very impressive, I must say.

Jose Padilla:
Yeah. Actually, when I realized that was going to be one of the questions, it was easy for me. Receiving an award from the Mexican government, what’s referred to as the Ohtli Award, I think was the most personal and has had the most meaning, actually for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t know what that was. This is the backstory. Cruz Reynoso calls me up. I think he’s teaching law in Florida. The consulate from San Francisco chooses him as a recipient of this award. Justice Reynoso is not coming and calls me up and says, “Jose, could you go to this consulate event. I’m supposed to receive an award, but can you receive it in my stead?” Of course. Nobody says no to Cruz Reynoso.

Jose Padilla:
So I go to this small event. The consulate’s there. I’m reading what the award is about. Because there’s so many immigrants coming from Mexico, the Mexican government recognizes that there are people in the United States that serve their compatriots here with advocacy and in a lot of other ways. But they’re Mexican citizens, and the Mexican government uses this to thank people who that for their citizens. When I realized that’s what it was and I saw it was a nice medallion and a sash. The word “Ohtli,” I think it might be an Aztec or Mayan word that means “the path,” or people who open up paths. When I saw that, I thought, “Huh. Someday maybe I’ll get this.” But it was just one of those things where it was just an honor for me to do it on behalf of Justice Reynoso.

Jose Padilla:
What happens next is that I become involved with the Hispanic National Bar. They had this national conference. The Mexican government approaches the Hispanic National Bar and says, “Can you recommend somebody who we can give this award to?” And I’m recommended as that person. So I received the award there in San Jose, and I knew what it was because one of my heroes had received it. In my mind, it was something that, it would never happen. All of a sudden, there it is.

Jose Padilla:
The reason it’s so significant to me is because when immigrants leave their countries, it’s difficult. Because they’re leaving their root and they’re going to a foreign space and foreign place. When Mexican people leave Mexico and they go off, a lot of people look at that very negatively. They look at it as, you’ve stepped on the Mexican flag. You’ve turned your back on your country. So here you have my grandparents having left Mexico, and I knowing that Mexico and the government looked at people like them, like my family, as having stepped on that flag and having turned their back to their country, trying to adopt another country. Then here I come, the second or third generation, and all of a sudden, their government thanks one of their children or one of their grandchildren.

Jose Padilla:
That’s why it was personal. Because I knew my roots. I knew what my family, my grandparents had suffered having left that country, adopted this country, suffered here for that, and yet the government never recognizes. Then here, the Mexican government comes around and thanks me for serving people just like my grandparents. That was why it’s the one that stands out, because it’s so personal, but it’s so rooted to what got me to do this work. That’s why I would say, okay, it was the only award from the Mexican government, because it was family award.

Alan Houseman:
I want to end with two sort of questions about the future. One is, why is migrant advocacy work so important, and what do you hope to see in the future? You’ve described a lot of what CRLA has done, of course. I don’t mean for you to repeat all that. But why is the work so important?

Jose Padilla:
Having thought about it, our country will always have classes. There will always be the best-off and the better-off. There will be maybe a return to a strong, robust middle class. It’s a big issue there in this country right now. And there’ll always be poor people. I think that so long as we have agriculture as an industry, there will always be workers. There will always be immigrant workers.

Jose Padilla:
You can fast forward. That industry is not going to get mechanized the way people threaten if human wage is paid. So I’ve always assumed that there will, as long as we have industry and need industry to feed our country, that worker doing that work. Generally there will always be that immigrant worker doing that work. Maybe another country, or be other countries. So long as those communities are part of the poverty community in this country, there will always be a need to provide that community access to the legal system.

Jose Padilla:
Historically, that’s what CRLA did. But in my county, the first picker was the African-American workers they brought in from the South in the early 1900s. My county was the county that brought cotton into California, and they went to the South to bring in African-American workers. By 1910, the African-American workers had gone off into the cities, to Los Angeles, and they looked to other labor and they brought in Mexican labor. Then they brought Filipino labor, and they brought Chinese labor. When I look back, I can see that the community that feeds the labor can come from different countries like it came then.

Jose Padilla:
It’s going to continue, I think, into the future so that somebody has to continue looking at that part of the larger poverty community. There will always be that need so long as we have a working class feeding us daily. That’s the one connection that’s very difficult for us, is that when you eat a salad, you never think who touched that and what was suffered in order for you to be fed. But there will always be that worker, I think, as long as we’re a country with part of our economy being agriculture.

Jose Padilla:
I think that legal services, the visionaries who put that into that first law that said the most marginalized communities were the migrant farm worker and the Native American community, they saw that at the creation of legal services. Those communities will continue to be marginalized. All that means is that those of us who come after and look at communities the same way that we did, which ones suffer differently, you’ll have to look at the ones that are most marginalized like that. Legal aid should continue to be that place that allows access to happen to the ones that are in the really marginalized edge of the economy. That’s what the farm worker advocacy represents. It’s the most marginal among already marginalized and poor people. As long as we look at it that way, there should always be a lawyer somewhere looking at the farm worker and that worker who feeds us.

Alan Houseman:
Finally, I’d like to ask you what are your hopes for the future of civil legal aid.

Jose Padilla:
I think so long as we are a country that believes that the words on monuments mean something, right, or that the words in constitutions and papers mean something, that “justice for all,” wherever that’s inscribed, has to mean justice. Justice is one thing. It has to mean all. The access to the “all” is what legal aid has been. The realization that when you address poverty, it shouldn’t be from a position of benevolence the way it used to be before, where a good-hearted lawyer helped a poor person with a will, or that one destitute in their space, and you feel good about lawyering that way. Access has to be bigger than that. Justice for all has to be bigger than that.

Jose Padilla:
So long as we have that promise on those monuments, you’re going to need to have that system serve those at the very, very bottom and include them as part of that all. For me, the future has to continue in the way it has, but looking back at the failure…. When we had that concept that I heard, and I heard it reading the material that you had put together out there, but during the Carter years when the idea was that for every 5,000 poor people, you were going to give them a legal aid lawyer. Remember that? In those days, CRLA was most resourced. I think the federal government at that point was paying for 50 lawyers. If that’s a concept that continues to this day and I’m serving 750,000 poor, the government should be paying for 150 lawyers, and it’s only paying for 30. My point being that my hope is that our country will one day return to understanding that it has an obligation to make its legal system accessible to everybody. As we all know, not only from the criminal side, but from the civil side. The legal aid movement forced our government to put it into law, to create the law for that, but also to resource it. In an ideal, we will have concepts like that, where you provide equal access way beyond just allowing somebody to be represented in the court, but access with resource, where you can actually provide the best kind of representation for the poor.

Jose Padilla:
My hope is that that philosophy that founded legal aid continues to be used by leaders in legal aid to drive their work. Not only that, but to be leaders themselves that will make that more resourceful. You will never take the politics out of this. I fully understand that the history. If it taught us anything, it’s taught us that it survives even though politics wants it to be eliminated. There will always continue to be survival as part of our future. The history that’s created in the future, survival will be a part of that.

Jose Padilla:
But even though we survive, the question is, you have to survive, be robust and effective. When I talk to my staff about these moments, like right now when people are wondering whether this administration will be supportive of legal services, what has always inspired me is seeing that even though we survive and we may be weak, we survive and are effective. We’re still effective.

Jose Padilla:
I think that my vision of legal services is limited to what I knew when we practiced it. It has to be providing that access to civil law in the basic ways that legal aid does. But it also has to continue to look at that bigger vision about changing the society in those big ways that impact the poor in the way they’ve done. To me, I hope that that philosophy is never lost — of systemic change as part of the work that you do at the same time that you’re helping the individual family access those public benefits, systems, etc. We’ve got to go into the future looking at both of those as part of the responsibility of a legal aid lawyer.

Alan Houseman:
This has been a terrific interview. Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t cover?

Jose Padilla:
Actually, I was thinking about just one thing. That question you asked me about what I ended up feeling good about as an accomplishment. People talk about branding. I think CRLA has a brand, even though it’s only a small part of what we do. Some people think that CRLA just does farm worker work. Farm worker work is only about a third of what we do. But yet that’s what a lot of people see as our core narrative, our brand. Even though we educate people to look at it in that broader sense, that we’ve been serving the rural poor for 50 years, I want to say this. I was handed a CRLA that had farm workers at its core. I think that CRLA can claim that it has been the law firm of farm workers in this country. That’s our brand. We are the law firm for farm workers. In any one year, a third of our clients, a third of our lawyers. For the last 38 years, since 1978 when they created Migrant Legal Services, we’ve had 10 to 15 lawyers just defending farm workers. I don’t think that that claim can be made by anybody anywhere in California or in the country.

Jose Padilla:
So when I look back about one of the things that I didn’t do or create, but that I maintained, was that core part of CRLA service as an effective part of CRLA service. I step back and I say, one thing we can say is that we have been the law firm for farm workers. The farm worker law firm. In any place along those years when I was director, we could’ve lost that. We could’ve decided not to continue fighting that because of the politics. Yet we continued to do it aggressively, effectively. As I step back and I look at what we’ve been able to do over that whole period of time, we were able to maintain that in a strong way, even to a point where we’ve been examples to others. But also in that community, we can make that claim that we have been the farm worker law firm.

Alan Houseman:
Thank you.

Jose Padilla:
No, thank you.


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Abstract: The interview was conducted at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana.