Asian American Legal Defense Fund

Identification: New York-based nongovernmental organization established to foster Asian American civil rights through the provision of legal services
Date: Established in 1974
Location: New York, New York
Also known as: Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; AALDEF
Significance: Prior to the establishment of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), no reliable sources of assistance were available for special legal issues faced by the Asian American community in the eastern United States. Because of language barriers, racial discrimination, and other considerations, Asian Americans were often among the “forgotten” ethnic groups with limited access to those in power.
The first major influx of immigrants into the United States from Asian countries, particularly China, began during the mid-nineteenth century with the discovery of gold and the building of transcontinental railroads. Following the repeal of various nineteenth century exclusionary laws, the influx began to increase anew. By the end of the twentieth century, the Asian American community was growing rapidly, mainly through immigration, and was expected to reach a total of some twenty million people by the year 2020. Despite these developments, Asian immigrants were still to be found working in unsafe sweatshop conditions during the early twenty-first century and often had nowhere to turn for legal help. Human smuggling continued to be a problem, and its unfortunate victims cannot seek redress from the appropriate authorities because they face imprisonment or deportation. These are some of the constituencies served by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

AALDEF Priorities and Services


Among the important issues addressed by AALDEF for the benefit of immigrant and lowerincome members of the Asian American community are voting rights, economic justice, employment (including hiring discrimination and labor and workplace rights), education, civil rights, anti- Asian violence, affirmative action, police misconduct, government benefits, and immigration issues, including naturalization assistance and human trafficking. The organization works with a relatively small permanent staff, a few of whose members are lawyers, and a contingent of several hundred volunteers, among them attorneys who serve on a pro bono basis. They work with Asian American communities across the United States, assisting an estimated twenty thousand annually, all without government funding but with support from foundations and corporations.
AALDEF provides its legal services free of charge to those unable to afford them and litigates cases that may have a wide-ranging impact on the Asian American community as a whole. The organization also provides legal training workshops for community organizers, community education that may impact thousands of people at the grass roots, training of students for potential careers in public interest law, and efforts to influence governmental policy to ensure equality for Asian Americans.
The fund also coordinates with other ethnically based interest groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, to maintain hard-won gains in civil rights. It is also a founding member of the Public Interest Law Center in New York City.
One example of the assistance AALDEF provides occurred in connection with the events of September 11, 2001, including the terrorist destruction of New York City’s World Trade Center towers. This disaster affected the Asian American community as seriously as members of other ethnic groups. Particularly hard-hit were residents and workers in New York’s Chinatown, especially those in the restaurant and garment industries. AALDEF provided legal services to at least five hundred displaced workers and used a $100,000 grant to hire additional case workers for outreach to the community.

Twenty-first Century Activities


In 2008, AALDEF won a settlement of $4.6 million in back wages for thirty-six Chinese immigrant workers at a Manhattan restaurant. During that same year, it organized the first National Asian American Education Summit to bring together youth advocates and students from across the United States to discuss strategies for improving public school education. AALDEF represents clients in school districts across the country and files amicus briefs in education-related court cases, including those pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of these cases concern controversies about English proficiency criteria for non-native English speakers.
Another example of AALDEF activism occurred during the 2008 presidential election. With record turnouts fromfirst-time Asian American voters and those who had recently become American citizens, there were numerous problems with inadequate language assistance, misspelled names on election rolls, lack of appropriate materials in voters’ native languages, and even evidence of anti-Asian hostility. AALDEF dispatched more than 1,400 attorneys, volunteers, and law students to numerous polling stations in areas with large Asian American populations to hear complaints and gather exitpolling data.
The 2008 national election also generated hundreds of complaints about voting problems that were registered on the AALDEF hotline. In 2009, the fund presented a policy report and recommendations about Asian American voter participation to a committee of the U.S. Congress. It identified obstacles to voting in eleven states and the District of Columbia. During the same year, AALDEF filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in a case relating to the enforcement of voting rights supposedly guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, the fund planned to work during the 2010 census to ensure that Asian American immigrants would be fully counted.
Roy Liebman
Further Reading Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Asian American Access to Democracy in the 2008 Elections. New York: Author, 2009. Report presented to the U.S. Congress about problems faced by Asian Americans in several states while voting during the 2008 elections. Available online in PDF format.
Kim, Hyung-chan. A Legal History of Asian Americans, 1790-1990. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Examination of legal issues relating to Asian immigrants, especially during their early years in the United States. Bibliography, index.
Outlook Newsletter. Biannual Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund newsletter outlining the accomplishments of AALDEF in the period since the previous publication. Also available as an online PDF file.
Redondo, Brian. Left in the Margins: Asian American Students and the No Child Left Behind Act. New York: Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 2008. Passed during the George W. Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act has not greatly benefited Asian American children. This AALDEF report enumerates the failings of the law. Available online in a PDF format.
See also: Asian immigrants; Bilingual education; Chinese immigrants; Chinese Six Companies; Immigration law; Immigration lawyers; Issei; Japanese American Citizens League; Japanese immigrants; United Farm Workers; Vietnamese immigrants.

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