Faith and Leadership Required: A Closer Look at Last Week’s White House Meeting

Photo by Downing Street.

Last week’s White House meeting on immigration marked another chapter in the years-long effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Janet Napolitano’s invitation to more than one hundred representatives from business, labor, faith, law enforcement, and immigration groups was a genuine attempt to listen to concerns and solicit ideas. The format—large group meeting addressed by the Secretary, small group discussion led by various DHS and White House officials, summary and surprise remarks from the President—gave people a chance to say just a little, but the cumulative effect was more important than we may realize.

From the perspective of the guests, the hour or so we had to discuss four major questions was just a drop in the bucket. Everyone knew that the four topics we were asked to consider could and should receive hours of discussion each: How do you create a manageable legalization program? How do you build a fair employment verification program that respects employer and employee rights? How do you manage future legal immigration, especially employment based immigration? How do you enforce immigration laws consistent with American values and due process? At best, everyone got to make a couple of points before the hour wrapped up. But the exercise was worth it, because critical themes emerged from those points.

The Secretary summed up some of those themes—the need to communicate her broader strategy more, that people need to know she will lead on comprehensive reform, that the decisions DHS is making on immigration control matters are substantively different from those of the Bush Administration. For many advocates, the jury may still be out on that last one, but clearly hearing from people that we haven’t seen the changes on the ground that have been announced in Washington had some impact on the Secretary and her staff.

This was certainly true in my group, where, regardless of the answers to the questions, the underlying answer was the same: none of this will work unless people feel that they can trust the government to honor its commitments and not revert to deportation as the solution to immigration control. Transparency and trust took a significant beating during the Bush administration, where raids and midnight regulations were far more common than White House meetings. Officials shouldn’t be surprised that hope and enthusiasm were mixed with some skepticism, especially in relation to law enforcement issues.

But ultimately, hope springs eternal. President Obama’s appearance at the end of the meeting—and his clear grasp of the need for immigration reform as well as its complexity—was an important finish. Yes, it is dazzling to see the President up close, but it is far more dazzling to realize that the “leader of the free world” understands that immigration reform matters. He asked people both to help devise a policy that will get immigration reform across the finish line and to find a way to discuss difficult issues absent the demagoguery currently plaguing the health care debate. There’s no doubt that plenty of people are poised to help, but last week’s meeting underscores the need for the President and the Secretary to take their message public and lead the way.

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  • I suspect the thousands of people innocent of any crime in the US, doing hard time for months and even years on “civil detention” courtesy of ICE would not be very impressed with seeing the President upclose while their torturous incarceration continues unabated. Words mean nothing as long as they are followed up with an increased prison population and worsening conditions.

    I just added another to my list of men I’m trying to help. This one is a Protestant minister from Africa. Here legally – a victim of identity theft that resulted in him being picked up by the police. The police realized the mistake and let him go, but not ICE. He was finally ordered released from prison by a judge in March. He is still sitting in jail. He not only did nothing wrong – he not only was here totally legally – but he’s the vicitm of a crime who is now being victimized by ICE for being a victim.

    President Obama’s words mean very little as long as these situations continue. Last I checked – you don’t do a crime, you don’t do time. Last I checked – lying in court was illegal, even for prosecutors. Last I checked – it was illegal to mistreat, neglect, abuse, assault or torture people, even for ICE agents and prison guards. Last I checked – murderers and rapists were not supposed to have more rights than someone whose papers weren’t in order. Last I checked – we were no longer acting like a nation that respects either the law or human rights. This is a national disgrace!

    I know I sound a bit obsessed and shrill, but everything I grew up believing my country stood for is being desecrated right before my eyes. I can’t just sit still and watch it happen. I don’t understand how others can.

    My friend who is still held in prison asked me last night, “Where are the American people?” I didn’t know what to tell him.

  • Some people once said to me that because I am an immigration lawyer and community activist, of course I advocate for immigration. But I see myself as an immigrant who has become an American, and I fully understand both sides of the issue.

    For many Americans who have been here for generations, clearly they have forgotten their ancestors’ immigrant roots. They now see this land is theirs only, and they do not want newcomers to share it. Public opinion and prejudiced views must be changed. The opposing view sees immigrants are here to take away something, to deprive the long-term citizens economic opportunities or social benefits.

    Why can’t Americans see immigrants as our nation’s greatest human resources? They are, and I am. Like many immigrants, I have been paying taxes for so many years to support my country and all its people, including those whose biased views I do not share. I have never seen or met too many immigrants who come to the U.S. in order to receive welfare or other public assistance, or to take advantage of our system without contributing to it. On the contrary, I see many Americans, some of those who protest the loudest, to take advantage of or try to cheat the system, and believe they are entitled to it.

    I always give this scenario and ask: if the whole nation felt sorry for the whale who got lost in the California delta a few years ago and showed so much sympathy seeing it struggled its way out, why can’t we have more empathy for human beings who struggle to make a better life in this country? Aren’t we all belonged to the human family?

    We now live in a global world where we connect with people around the world through the internet, through commerce and science, through popular cultures and arts, among other things. Can we just get along and direct our energy not to criticize/exclude newcomers, but to contribute whatever effort to make our country a better place for ALL? The strength of the U.S. which makes it a superpower in less than 200 years comes from its diversity, comes from generations of immigrants.