Feathered Bastard

White House Staffer Disappoints Phoenix Latino Leaders in Meeting at El Portal (w/Update)

Don't hold your breath waiting for the Obama administration to do anything in the near future about immigration reform, or yanking Sheriff Joe Arpaio's 287(g) authority. That's the message some local Latino leaders took away from a series of meetings held recently at Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox's El Portal restaurant with a White House staffer by the name of Carlos Odio.

Odio was in Phoenix last week and met with about 70 to 80 activists, politicians, and business people, spread out in three back-to-back get-togethers at Wilcox's eatery. Most of those I spoke to about the meetings did not wish to be identified. However, in general, attendees described the meetings as frustrating and depressing. Especially since Odio's message was that any work on immigration reform would have to wait until after the administration tackled health care.

"Odio said they're not going to start talking about immigration reform until this fall," said one attendee, who wished to remain anonymous. "Which means nothing is going to happen until after next year, because next year is an election year. No one's going to touch a hot button like immigration in an election year."

Regarding Arpaio, Odio refused to make any commitment regarding revoking or suspending Arpaio's 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the agreement, ICE has trained 160 of Arpaio's deputies to enforce federal immigration law, and Arpaio has regularly used these deputies during his racial profiling sweeps in Maricopa County. When challenged on this issue, Odio stated that Arpaio was being investigated by the Department of Justice, and that he could not comment beyond that.

When one person shot back that such an investigation could take years, Odio reportedly said that the Obama administration did not want to do anything to jeopardize immigration reform. Regarding ICE's 287(g) program, and enforcement efforts such as ICE's Secure Communities program, these did not seem to be on the White House's chopping block for the immediate future. Odio suggested, according to two attendees, that certain internal enforcement provisions would have to be kept in any immigration reform package as a sop to critics on the right.

Reached at his White House office, Odio confirmed that the El Portal meetings took place and that he was at them. However, he refused comment on anything else, and referred me to White House communications for more info.

Ultimately, White House spokesman Adam Abrams called me and gave me the following statement:

"The President recognizes that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, and is committed to starting the conversation on immigration reform later this year, and that continues to be the plan."

This tends to corroborate at least some of what Odio said at the meeting, specifically that the Obama administration will not begin even talking about immigration reform until the fall. (Please see update below.) And as the attendee above surmised, it's not a stretch to imagine that means no action on immigration until 2011.

One of the few individuals willing to go on the record with respect to the meetings was former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, who endorsed Barack Obama's candidacy over Hillary Clinton's in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Gutierrez sounded annoyed with the tone of the conversation during the meeting he attended.

"It was clearly sort of a self-congratulatory thing," explained Gutierrez. "People sort of clapping each other on the back...Then the focus was on `what we can do.' And what we can do revolved around things like forming Obama youth clubs.

"Finally, I spoke up...I said, `Yeah, there's something you can do, revoke Arpaio's goddamn 287(g)!' It seemed to shock everybody in the room. The Democratic Party people were stunned. They all took deep gasps."

Gutierrez warned of dire consequences for Democrats otherwise.

"`If you don't revoke Arpaio's 287(g),'" Gutierrez recalled telling Odio, "`do you really expect the undocumented to participate in the census? You're going to lose a congressional seat, if you don't do this. You guys need to take a stand.'"

Gutierrez wasn't the only person who spoke up. He described how Lydia Guzman, the new President of Somos America, questioned Odio about the dicey situation all Hispanics have to deal with here in Arizona.

"She tried as diplomatically as she could to deal with the issue of things being very bad," recounted Gutierrez, who remembered Guzman asking Odio, "`Are you guys going to do something about this? You know, nothing has changed under Obama.'"

But Guzman didn't make any headway either.

"She got dismissed is what she got," Gutierrez remembered. "The attitude was absolutely dismissive. They wanted to talk about Obama youth groups, and when Obama comes to town [again], he shouldn't go to the East Valley, he should come to [Phoenix]."

Contacted for a response, Guzman stated that Gutierrez's account was accurate, and she said she was "a little bit disappointed" that so much of the discussion had to do with "reenergizing the youth."

Others I spoke with, who wished to remain unnamed, described Odio as "insensitive" and pompous, going on and on about his role in Obama's 2008 campaign for president. Also, they found much of what he had to say disturbing from an immigrant rights perspective. For instance, one said Odio indicated that the Dream Act would have to wait until after comprehensive immigration reform is passed. 

However, Ruben Gallego, a Vice Chair in the state Democratic Party, and chief of staff to Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski, defended Odio, and criticized those who spoke about the meeting, saying the meeting was supposed to have been "off the record." He explained that he and Nowakowski helped organize the meetings.

"To say that the [Obama White House is] not going to be doing anything, that would not be responsible," said Gallego. "Because we don't actually know that's true. For all we know, there could be a lot of things being planned. They just weren't mentioned in the meeting. I take offense to this idea that nothing's being done...obviously something's being done, when someone was willing to come out and meet with our community here in Phoenix." 

But others were not so hopeful. Advocate and lobbyist George Diaz, being one.

"I was impressed to have the ear of the White House," Diaz told me. "I'm skeptical about whether or not our commentary will go anywhere. Or that anything will come of our commentary. "

Gutierrez was plum dismayed.

"You just go away shaking your head," he said. "I haven't been involved in the mechanics of the Democratic Party for years now, maybe four or five. If I ever wondered why, I was well reminded by this meeting. It was pretty sad. A pretty worthless afternoon, I thought."

UPDATE: A White House aide called me this morning, asking that I point out that the White House has a meeting scheduled on June 17 with congressional leaders of both parties to discuss immigration. Originally, the meeting was scheduled for June 8. The aide, who did not wish to be identified, could not explain the discrepancy between what Odio told Latino leaders last week, or with Abrams' statement to me quoted above. Nor could the aide tell me if the meeting will be held in public or private. The following is what the aide would say on the record:

"The president is inviting a small group of bipartisan Senate and House leaders on the immigration issue to the White House for a meeting to have an honest discussion of the issues, identify areas of agreement, and areas where we still have work to do."  

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons