In 1988, the President of St. Thomas University proposed the creation of an International Human Rights Institute at St. Thomas University as a demonstration of its "willingness to transform its values and beliefs into action and service to the world community." Then Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, sponsor of St. Thomas University, enthusiastically supported this idea, commenting that Miami would be a most appropriate location for such and institute, and that "such concerns for peace and justice should be high on the priority list of a Catholic University."

A planning committee of dedicated law school and university faculty and staff, as well as noted community leaders, developed immediate and medium-range goals for the Institute. With the critical help of financial support received from the Metro-Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners, it was possible to realize the dream and begin operations in late 1991, and officially launch the St. Thomas University Human Rights Institute on March 18, 1992.

In 1994, based on research conducted in previous years, and supported by local (and later state, county, foundation, and other) grants, the Institute began to provide free (pro bono) direct legal services to immigrants and indigent members of the community.