In Washington, we have very hot summers without a real beach to beat the heat. Our winters can be wet, sloppy messes or we can get pounded with multiple snow storms in a city completely unprepared for more than three inches of snow. Along with the occasional security scare, World Bank protest and Presidential motorcade, life in the Nation’s Capital can be challenging. However, certain things make up for that. I can see the Washington Monument from my window, the reflection of the Lincoln Memorial on the pool and the genuine devotion of DC area residents to ideas in the public sphere are some of them.
Last night, I had another opportunity to appreciate Washington life. I received an invitation to attend a meeting at the Office of Public Engagement of the White House to discuss priorities for the Obama administration in the second term. Now, I would have crossed continents and oceans for such an opportunity. Luckily, all I had to do was take a short two-block walk on a lovely night and I was in the West Wing. Amazingly, the security guards at the White House are far more relaxed and confident than the guards at your standard federal building. Perhaps that was due to the President being on the other side of the earth. Relieved that I got to keep my belt on, I entered the White House, with about seven other people– an impressive collection of people. An ornate, inviting, and comfortable lobby awaits:
In the lobby, a TV blared Chris Matthews talking Benghazi non-stop. It must be strange to sit all day in a lobby where national news is talking about your co-workers all day long. I asked the receptionist if that grows tiresome and she told me that the TV is usually tuned to ESPN. Good call. We were welcomed into the White House by the lovely Rumana Ahmed, pictured below:
What a great impression of inclusion and American diversity and unity all at once to be welcomed to the White House by Rumana.
Prior to the meeting, I reached out to many Friends of Benach Ragland and asked for advice as to what specifically should be said about immigration. Together, we came up with a wish list of immigration priorities, which grew to fifteen items. Briefly, however, they settled on a restoration of judicial review over most immigration decisions, a generous waiver of most grounds of removability, reform of visa numbers to eliminate lengthy backlogs, DREAM Act, Permanent Partners, enhanced protection for minors, and increased ease in admitting highly educated immigrants. I prepared my elevator speech to tell them what they needed to do on immigration. However, it is well known military truism that the best strategy evaporates in the first seconds of battle. The meeting grew in different ways and adaptation was necessary.
Rumana took us upstairs to meet Jon Carson. We walked through the internal guts of the working White House and I was surprised to see people piled on top of each other, still working hard at 6:30 with the President in Cambodia. The workspace was decidedly not plush. Jon Carson is a super affable guy who oozes sincerity. I learned that he has a son in Pre-K at my kids’ school, but, unfortunately, his son and my Pre-K son are in different classes! Washington Living, again.
He told us that the administration wanted to hear about what they can do better in the second term and how can they use the next four years to push progressive ideas. Jon said that the two main immediate issues were the fiscal cliff and immigration. He also mentioned the logistics of having to sign up millions of Americans for health insurance coverage. The results of the election really dawned on me as the administration was planning the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Jon said that the theme of the second term of the Presidency would be “citizenship,” a theme the President highlighted at the Democratic National Convention. We previously riffed on the meaning of citizenship as immigration lawyers, but, sitting in the White House talking about making policy and administrative moves that would affect the lives of millions of people, the active nature of the concept became clearer. It is about creating closer ties of community with volunteers, schools, religious institutions and neighbors. Naturally, therefore, the conversation turned to organizing. Many observers have attributed the President’s victory to an organized workforce and volunteer system that delivered the vote and the participants in the meeting discussed how the Obama volunteer organization, Organizing for America, can be deployed not only in service of an election but also in service of progressive ideals.
As the discussion turned to immigration, I offered that some of the best organized and effective advocates are the undocumented youth who have created networks that have pushed immigration to the forefront. Organizations like DreamActivist and United We Dream have regularly outpaced more traditional organizations in calling attention to immigration injustices. Jon mentioned that only once has the President urged the public to contact Congress and that was during the debt ceiling fight last year. That call to arms shut down the Capitol Hill switchboard. I mentioned that undocumented youth are pretty good at shutting down switchboards and that, if the President came out strong for immigration reform, he would have formidable allies ready to work. I told Jon that there was a lot of mistrust of the administration on immigration and that they needed to see strong Presidential leadership to get behind immigration reform. Jon replied that the White House was well aware of the mistrust and expressed hope that DACA represented a turning point.
Jon wanted to know if immigration reform could be a rallying point for progressives for the long term. Everyone in the room seemed to agree that it was. Someone pointed out that no matter what their political persuasion, business supports immigration reform and immigration could be a way to begin to repair damage between the President and business community. I offered that the important parts of the core of the President’s support of Latinos, Asians and women could be solidified with immigration reform. Latinos would be Democrats for a generation with a generous immigration reform program – one that does not offer some simple and easy fixes while tightening enforcement, but one that recognizes that we have overdosed on enforcement and are in need to benefit reform. More butter, less guns. In addition, an appeal to women could be made if Michelle Obama met with U.S. citizen children whose parents have been deported. The staggering human cost of enforcement on steroids needs to be examined.
This was not a meeting for detailed proposals about restoring 212(c) or eliminating the three and ten year bar. Rather, it was big picture. The White House is now preoccupied with the fiscal cliff. The top legislative priority after fiscal cliff is settled is immigration. I have no doubt that the White House recognizes the need for very strong Presidential leadership on the issue. I tried to emphasize over and over again that reform cannot be left to the Congress and the President must guide and frame the discussion. I also have little doubt that the President is starting from a very generous reform program. Lastly, I can tell you that the White House is prepared to deploy all its resources on this. This includes mobilizing the extensive volunteer network and the OFA system to build support for immigration reform. Remember all those emails you got during the campaign asking for $17? They are not going away. Instead of asking you for $17, whoever, they will ask you to call Congress to ensure that generous common sense immigration reform is passed.
This is the best opportunity in a generation for sensible and humane immigration laws and the White House appears committed to doing it right. I know that there are those of you who don’t trust the administration at all to do what is right on immigration. And I will concede that the air of the White House may have clouded my judgment. It is very hard to remain cynical and jaded in the White House. I hope that you can put aside your cynicism and can dare to believe that, in the words of Sam Cooke, a change is gonna come. (watch below!) What do you have to lose?