Nina Perales

Paving the Way

Nina Perales '90 helps spur social change through her work with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

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Dressed in a neat suit, with her face framed by a pair of glasses, Nina Perales ’90 may not look like a superhero-type who battles vigilantes for a living. But, in fact, she spends her days fighting for justice and representing underprivileged populations. Though her role as the Southwest Regional Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Perales recently worked to stop a vigilante from terrorizing immigrants along the Arizona-Mexico border.

In most instances, Perales must face down long odds in order to achieve victory in the courtroom. In the case that took place along the border, for instance, she explains that many people believed rancher Roger Barnett would never be held accountable for his ongoing violence because of his ties to local law enforcement. But last year, MALDEF attorneys supervised by Perales successfully argued a civil case accusing the rancher of holding 16 individuals at gun point while they were resting in the desert near along a state highway. He did so simply because of his belief that they were illegal immigrants. He kicked a woman who was lying on the ground, and detained the group after calling authorities. Barnett was sued for assault and infliction of emotional distress, and the plaintiffs ultimately were awarded more than $70,000 in damages. Perales, who lives in San Antonio, called the verdict “a resounding victory that sends a message that vigilante violence against immigrants will not be tolerated.”

Under Perales’ leadership, MALDEF also defeated an appeal by Barnett, who was convicted of threatening a family, which included three preteen girls, with a semi-automatic assault rifle. The family, all U.S. citizens, was deer hunting on state land when assaulted by Barnett. “He attacked people, set his dog on people,” she says.

In addition to stopping vigilantes like Barnett, Perales has also worked on a number of other immigrant rights issues for MALDEF. She is an expert on voting rights law and argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2006 challenge to Texas’ voter redistricting plan. She explained that the plan would dilute minority votes by excluding more than 100,000 Latinos from the 23rd congressional district. The Court rejected the plan, and the decision was hailed as a victory for the Voting Rights Act.

A native of New York City, Perales did not expect to move to Texas. After graduating from Columbia Law School, she spent five years working with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund before relocating to Laredo and then San Antonio with her husband, Javier Maldonado ’95. Perales has since come to realize that the change in scenery provided many opportunities that would not have been available otherwise.

“The work we do could not be done in New York,” says Perales, who was recently honored with a Soaring Eagles Award from the American Association for Justice. Examples she cites include a racial discrimination case where the primarily white local authorities refused to pave the streets in the Mexican-American section of town. “I was coming from New York where I’d never seen an unpaved street,” Perales explains. “The silver lining of working in the Southwest is that you are making the path as you walk it.”

Photographed by Alicia Wagner Calzada

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