As Donald Trump’s attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage were being roundly condemned, he and his supporters turned their fire on an innocent bystander: The San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, which counts Curiel among its members.
San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association is a pretty typical professional group that promotes diversity and Latino empowerment in the legal community. You can find similar organizations for African American lawyers, Asian lawyers, female lawyers and so forth, as well as parallel organizations in almost every other industry.
Now, thanks to a smear campaign by Trump and his supporters, who have used Curiel’s connections to the group to justify the presumptive GOP nominee’s attacks on him, the attorneys group has had to defend itself against claims of having a “radical” agenda, being racist, and of unduly influencing Curiel. Like other institutions and people targeted by Trump and his associates, the attention has also led a backlash of “hateful” phone calls, emails and Facebook post, according to the group.
“Mr. Trump is a smart man, and he’s a deploying a certain kind of language that is xenophobic and jingoistic which he has used to rally his campaign, and I think he’s done this to distract people,” San Diego La Raza’s president Luis Osuna told TPM.
La Raza San Diego is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit trade organization and an affiliate of the California La Raza Lawyers Association. According to Osuna, it mainly serves as a professional resource for its Latino and non-Latino members that include lawyers, judges, and law students. The group organizes seminars, networking events, and a scholarship fund.
“La Raza is a pretty ordinary group of lawyers, basically organized around shared ethnicity and non-exclusive for that,” Charles Bird, the former president of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers, told TPM. (He was not speaking on behalf of either group.)
“They have principles related to diversity issues. But these are lawyer professional organizations, they’re not political parties,” Bird said.
Through the attacks by Trump and his surrogates, a conventional professional organization has come to embody all the fears about Hispanics in certain pockets of the hard right that have been driving Trump’s campaign in the first place.
When Trump first started attacking Curiel back in February over his rulings in a class action lawsuit against Trump over Trump University, La Raza didn’t even come up, nor was it mentioned in his lengthy campaign stump rant about Curiel last month that kicked the controversy into high gear.
Donald Trump at a rally in San Diego, where he went on an extended rant bashing the judge presiding over two Trump University cases.
It was only after the scrutiny intensified around Trump for citing the judge’s Mexican heritage as proof of bias did Trump and his surrogates began linking his criticism of Curiel with the judge’s membership in La Raza.
His national spokesperson Katrina Pierson accused the group of organizing anti-Trump protests, apparently confusing La Raza San Diego with the advocacy group National Council of La Raza (more on that later). Even after the distinction between the two was pointed out, other Trump surrogates followed suit by saying Curiel’s association with La Raza San Diego was fair game.
Trump, meanwhile, described it over the weekend as a “club or society very strongly pro-Mexican,” while alluding to the judge’s “associations with certain professional organizations” in his Tuesday statement responding to concerns about his attacks.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called the group “radical” and said Trump’s complaints about it were “legitimate.” Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord penned a lengthy screed about La Raza San Diego that essentially said that the group — and not Trump — was the real racist.
“Most assuredly, Judge Gonzalo Curiel has gone out of his way to not only openly tie himself to this group of racially directed lawyers — but to participate in the left-wing agenda favored so deeply by leftist race-driven Hispanics,” Lord wrote.
Jeffrey Lord, a member of the Reagan administration, has vocally supported Donald Trump and his attacks on a federal judge.
Conservative media has sought out to find additional connections between the organization and “Pro-Illegal Immigrant Groups,” as Daily Caller put it.
The most damning claim they could muster is that Curiel, as a member of La Raza San Diego’s scholarship committee, was involved in a decision to hand out a scholarship to an undocumented immigrant.
“Think of that for a moment. The very first act of this student was to break American law, and Judge Curiel awards him a scholarship — for law school!” Lord wrote in his anti-La Raza diatribe.
Trump-friendly CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany said that the scholarship proves the group “obviously supports the idea of illegal immigrants,” and thus would have a bias against Trump for “having a very hard line stance on immigration.”
According to the Washington Post, the scholarship recipient’s immigration status was not listed on his application and was only revealed after he had won the award. Furthermore, under a California State Supreme Court ruling, undocumented immigrants are permitted admission to the state bar as long as they meet the requirements to practice law in the state, the Post said.
The Daily Caller touted a link from the La Raza San Diego website to the National Council of La Raza. “Meet The Pro-Illegal Immigrant Groups The La Raza Lawyers Of San Diego Consider Part Of Their ‘Community’”, its headline blared.
The link exists on a page titled “For the Community” where La Raza San Diego suggests resources for other issues of interest to Latinos, as Osuna explained it. The site also provides links to groups focused on things like health care, immigration and human trafficking. The link on the website was the only connection La Raza San Diego has to National Council of La Raza, Osuna said.
National Council of La Raza does indeed advocate on behalf of immigration reform. However, the advocacy group denied involvement in any anti-Trump protests and refuted the claim that its agenda qualified as “radical”
And then there’s the name “La Raza” itself. Breitbart pondered, “Imagine the outcry if white attorneys from Mississippi, such as this author, started a a legal association called ‘The Race’ with the stated mission to promote the interest of white, Southern communities.”
But, as Media Matters pointed out, La Raza San Diego’s own website explained that translating “La Raza” literally to “The Race” misses a whole assortment of other meanings of the word, including “the community” and “the people.” It was also inspired by the term “La Raza Cósmica,” meaning the “the cosmic people.”
“This is an inclusive concept, meaning that Hispanics share with all other peoples of the world a common heritage and destiny,” the La Raza San Diego website says.
That hasn’t stopped Trump supporters from using it to justify his attacks on Curiel. Besides their misleading nature, the attacks prompted “menacing” messages sent to Osuna’s office and posted on the group’s Facebook page, Osuna told TPM.
“In some of the voicemails they’re comparing us to the KKK and other extremist groups such as that,” Osuna said. “In regards to the emails we’ve been getting and the Facebook posts, they’ve ranged from someone saying ‘where can I find a Mexican flag? I want to piss on it’ to other comments indicating that we should not be an organization and that we’re racist, so it spans the gamut.”
Osuna said none of the messages or phone calls — which have largely been fielded by his law firm staff — have threatened violence, but almost a week after Trump first targeted on the group, they have continued.
“I can’t imagine that our national discourse would have gone to this if we didn’t have a presidential candidate who said something stupid and racist and is trying to find a way to back pedal out of it,” Bird said.