Civic-minded lawyer fights for the rights of immigrants

Driven to combat racism and injustice, John De León legally empowers immigrants alongside Cesár Chavez’s son, Fernando Chávez

May 17, 1980, was a pivotal moment in US history, and one that set the stage for John De León’s successful career fighting for the rights of immigrants. On that day, four white Miami-Dade police officers that had allegedly killed African-American Arthur McDuffie during a traffic stop, were acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury after less than three hours of deliberation. Following the verdict, the black neighborhoods of Overtown and Liberty City witnessed a race riot so severe that Miami was declared a federal disaster area by the government.

“It was the first time I was confronted with the ugliness of racism in this country, and that was an eye-opening experience for a young Latino kid who had grown up in the Anglo community of North Miami,” recalls De León, who attended high school not far from where the riots broke out.

De León—the son of Cubans who came to the United States in 1959—would later attend Georgetown Law School, intern at the public defender’s office, and work at a clinic teaching inner-city kids about their rights as citizens in this country. “Those two [work] experiences drove my passion even further,” says De León, although he says the most satisfying moment of his early career was working with the public defender’s service in Colombia. “Lawyers in this country are concerned about our career paths, whether we’ll become judges and what kind, but there, lawyers are concerned that their decisions could cost them their lives,” he says. “It taught me what real courage was about.”

hispanics in south miami by the numbers

11,932
South Miami population

43.1%
Hispanic

27.1%
Cuban

14.7%
population below poverty line

When he returned to the United States, De León was open to leaving the law, but he met with Federico Sayre, the California lawyer who had successfully represented Rodney King in his federal civil rights case against the city of Los Angeles, and changed his mind. “I was blown away by what I saw in his offices—portraits of Cesar Chávez, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.—and the thought that I could follow in the footsteps of such great men moved me to join the firm,” he says.

A few years later, De León would take a courageous step of his own and found Miami-based Chávez & De León, P.A. with Fernando Chávez, Cesar Chávez’s son. Today, the firm is known for its work on cases that have had a national impact on the rights of immigrants. Perhaps most satisfying, he says, was his work with a Nebraska woman who had lost custody of her children after being deported to Guatemala. “In an incredibly troubling decision, the court ruled that her deportation was abandonment, and placed her children in foster care,” says De León. “[The law firm of] DLA Piper handled the appeal, and we filed an amicus brief on behalf of the government of Guatemala challenging the idea that immigrants somehow have a lesser right to their children as a result of deportation. The case went to the Nebraska Supreme Court, and in a unanimous decision, was decided in the favor of the Nebraska woman.”

The case—which De León considers one of the most important cases on the rights of immigrant parents in US history—is only one of many he’s been a part of, both at Chávez & De León and through his service as president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He has also helped prosecute hospitals who deport immigrants instead of treating them, thereby putting their lives in danger, and represented immigrants who suffer personal injuries as a result of their work in the United States. “I believe in the mission of Cesar Chávez, so I’m really proud to be involved in so many cases enforcing the rights of immigrants in this country,” he says.