Posted by Arab American Institute on April 29, 2016 in Blog

NNAAC members

More than 175 Arab Americans hit Capitol Hill and the White House during two days of community leadership to “advocate for justice”. Using #ArabAmericansLead the Arab American Institute organized its annual advocacy days partnering with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), and the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) on April 19th and 20th.  

“For our community, these advocacy days are focused on justice at home and abroad and are part of our ongoing Yalla Vote campaign. Our community’s place at the political table has been hard fought and despite the hate filled rhetoric we’ve seen from some on the campaign trail this year we’re not going away. Indeed, we are organizing with renewed efforts because we have and always will be a critical part of our nation’s mosaic,” said Maya Berry, AAI Executive Director.

On the Hill, a packed hearing room heard from Members of Congress, including Keith Ellison (D-MN); Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Garret Graves (R-LA). The members spoke of their long ties to the community and encouraged them to become familiar faces in Washington. “You are a very good site where I am standing….If you have a voice, you can change policy, you will be effective,” said Ellison. In a lighter moment, Ellison pointed out former Michigan State Representative Rashida Tlaib as his mom’s favorite politician. Graves, one of seven Arab American Members of Congress, spoke with pride of his heritage and the need to address growing instability in the region. For her part, Dingell reiterated her support for the community’s efforts to speak out against hate.

Abed Ayoub, Patrick Eddington, and Maya Berry

In order to prepare for a day of meeting with congressional offices, the community heard from a range of experts on several issues. ADC’s National Legal and Policy Director Abed Ayoub and the NAAP National President Sarab Al-Jijakli spoke about various civil liberties challenges and the humanitarian crisis in Syria respectively. They were joined by speakers from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, CATO Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union. AAI alum Khaled Elgindy from the Brookings Institution briefed the group on the Palestinian crisis.  

After meeting with their members of Congress, the community activists joined the Arab American Institute Foundation for a celebration of the annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards. The gala began 18 years ago to recognize individuals, organizations and communities whose work exemplifies the message of human endurance and triumph so evident in Gibran’s life and work. This year’s gala made a point of focusing on those working with refugees, a topic that was front and center for many of the advocacy meetings earlier in the day.

High school students ahead of Leadership Day.

The next morning the #ArabAmericansLead group met at the White House for a series of briefings with Administration officials. Vanita Gupta, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice spoke about profiling, hate crimes and voting rights. One community member was glad to hear about the measures being taken to guarantee the right to vote and asked specifically about accusations of voter suppression in Maricopa County, AZ. The Justice Department has announced an investigation into the situation in Maricopa. ADC National President Samer Khalaf raised the need for yet another revision to the DOJ guidelines on profiling that were last updated in 2014. profiling guidelines for non DOJ entities. The DOJ has issued guidance on profiling for agencies under it’s jurisdiction and although incomplete, the many other entities outside the DOJ are not bound by that guidance. Tlaib and a NNAAC activist asked about the response to bullying and bigotry while citing the need for greater visibility in local communities.

Alex Joel, the Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence addressed the group’s concerns on surveillance and privacy. Jumana Musa of AAI’s National Policy Council pressed Joel on these issues along with the possibility of civil rights violations. Given the rise in cases classified as domestic terrorism AAI alum Omar Tewfik requested Joel outline the distinction between what gets classified as domestic versus foreign acts of terror. 

May Soliman

The conversation around rights and liberties was followed by briefings on the refugee crisis. Robert Carey, Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Administration for Children and Families was pressed by AAI Board Member Nahla Kayali and Nadia Tonova, Director for NNAAC on funding needs for local groups aiding refugee resettlement. Amy Pope, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Homeland Security Advisor at the National Security Council was asked about visa issues for Syrian refugees and what could be done about governors who were refusing to cooperate with refugee resettlement.

Focusing on U.S. foreign policy, Colin Kahl, Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, addressed the group about the Administration’s priorities for the region. Among the high school students in attendance, one young woman asked for Kahl to expand on the Administration’s view of Iran’s role in the region. Ramsey Joudeh wanted to know what more could be done to protect the rights of Palestinian Americans who are stopped and/or detained by Israel. In a heated session that included activists arguing for greater balance in the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the group gave voice to the long-held disappointment in a failed approach that does not take into account Arab American and other voices for peace who highlight the need for justice for Palestinians too. Closing remarks came from Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, whose remarks were a fitting way to conclude a tense session.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President. 

As the November general election approaches, these Leadership Days help remind elected officials that Arab Americans have one of the highest rates of voter participation among ethnic minorities with more than 88% of the community registered to vote. With high concentrations of Arab Americans living in some of the most politically important states – including California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia – the high rate of political participation in the community make Arab Americans a key group. In Michigan, Arab American voters represent about 5% of the vote.

Arab American voters have been shown to vote by candidate or issue, and less due to party loyalty. With 24% of the population identifying as independent voters, and the tendency of Arab Americans to eschew party loyalty, the community has put its support behind candidates of both parties during past election cycles. Those seeking office have learned that they cannot ignore such an active community in these key states.

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