Posted by on April 20, 2012 in Blog

By Danielle Malaty

On Thursday, April 19th, the Arab American Institute (AAI), in cooperation with the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), hosted over 100 Arab American leaders representing over 20 states across the country for Arab American Leadership Day in Washington DC. The day included a White House Leadership Briefing at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, followed by a Capitol Hill Meet and Greet Lunch with members of Congress at the House Visitor Center.

AAI worked closely with the White House Office of Public Engagement to organize the briefing with senior Administration officials to discuss issues affecting the Arab American community. Speakers included Terry Ahwel from the American Federation of Ramallah, the Special Representative for Global Partnership Kris Balderston, Director of the Office of Public Engagement, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Executive Director of the White House Business Council Ari Matusiak, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis Mcdonough, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement Paul Monteiro, Assistant to the President Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice Tom Perez, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, and Arab American Institute’s own Doctor James Zogby.

Mr. Paul Monteiro began the briefing by reminding the attendees that they shouldn’t underestimate the influence that they have as a community. Kris Balderston echoed Mr. Monteiro by saying that not one country or one agency can solve problems; interagency, intercommunity, and interfaith cooperation must take place for real change to happen. He emphasized the power of coming together in one forum to tackle issues that affect us all. He also explained that we as a community must be prepared and comfortable to take risks, promote public service, and reach out to leaders in high positions of authority to lobby for change. He concluded by reminding the attendees that we should strive to work with our local and federal governments.

Cecilia Munoz then took the podium and explained that as a community with a particular agenda, we must promote intercommunity cooperation and combine agendas. When our agendas fuse together with like-minded people from other communities, our voices resonate with much more force through the halls of Congress.

Valerie Jarrett explained that she sincerely wants to work with people in ways that allow them to recognize that they’re indeed American first, but still be proud of their culture. Ms. Jarrett appropriately summed up the sentiment that we all had in the room. Ideally, Arab Americans need to feel as though they have a forum in which we can congregate to voice their opinions in unison, and expect this cooperation to yield results and gain the attention of Congress. Congress must also be willing to establish an interagency cooperation, which would indicate to the Arab American and American Muslim community that Congress cares and is willing to take as many steps as possible to ensure the constitutional guarantees and due process that we are all as Americans entitled to.

Kyle Lierman then took the podium and discussed immigration, and described it to be not just a Latino issue, but an American issue. He spoke on behalf of the White House by assuring the audience that a path for illegal immigrants is a goal for this administration. Mr. Lierman promoted a broadening of the net of immigrants which would bring more people into the system, ultimately broadening the tax base for all. He then thanked the Obama administration for adjusting the statutes surrounding the three and ten year bar to remain in the US, allowing people to stay here while their citizenship status is up in the air. He concluded his speech by stating that the main immigration process is broken; fewer problems with immigration will ultimately result in less people arriving to the US illegally.

Another audience member asked Mr. Lierman what the President was doing to bring back manufacturing jobs. He responded by explaining that the manufacturing sector is experiencing the strongest growth since the 1980s, and reminded the audience that the President focused on manufacturing in his most recent State of the Union address. He further defended the Obama administration by explaining how Obama has begun a process of regulatory reform, more than any administration in the past 20 years. He estimated a net gain of 91 billion dollars resulting from the absence of said regulations. Obama has also agreed to partner with the private sector to find out how the government can leverage the skills it has.

Tom Perez took the podium and touched upon a very sensitive topic – the FBI training materials. He described it to be a “profound embarrassment” and explained that the attorney general, who was mortified, requested a follow-up to make sure that all training materials are consistent with our Constitution and values. He then thanked the Arab American and American Muslim communities for the education they have given the Department of Justice on how they can “get it right.” He admitted that they fell short, but assured the audience that they were determined to get it right.

Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York asked Mr. Perez what the Arab American and American Muslim community can do to get the administration really moving on the NYPD issue in light of the strong and very visible mistrust of law enforcement. He responded by stating that they have heard from affected community members directly, and the NYPD policy continues to be under active review. He described it to be filled with complex issues, but the administration is determined to reach a resolution. Ms. Sarsour expressed Arab American and American Muslim communities’ frustration with these practices, as it diminishes partnerships, quality control, and described the practices to be a “one size fits all” framework. She concluded that it simply doesn’t reflect diversity of community, but also makes it.

Following the conclusion of the White House hearing, attendees congregated at the House Visitor Center on Capitol Hill for a Congressional luncheon. As lunch was served, elected representatives dropped by to say a few words to their constituents. Representative John D. Dingell, who proudly represents Michigan’s Fifteenth Congressional District and is the longest-serving member of the United States House of Representatives in history, came to speak to the Leadership Day participants and encouraged us to not only feel free and confident to assert our civil rights and liberties, but to also take ownership of them in an age of Islamophobia.

Arab Americans and American Muslims, along with several other minority groups, find themselves hard pressed to assemble and hold these types of meetings in order to express themselves and provide the government with their grievances because often times they are left with discouragement. AAI’s leadership day White House Briefing not only reminded us all that public engagement isn’t a futile effort, but the more we engage our public officials, the bigger changes we can make and the more fruitful our relationship with the administration can be. 

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