WASHINGTON — At a sandwich shop near the White House on Tuesday, L. Mireya Reith excitedly described her meeting moments earlier with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
"It was really just a privilege," Reith said.
President Obama was in good spirits, thanking her and nine other immigration reform advocates for their work in championing the issue in their respective states, she said.
"He said, which was very much the message of the day, that there is a lot of optimism immigration reform will happen this year," she said. "He also really encourage us to think of what we need to do to make sure the program is implemented as it is meant to be implemented."
Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform on Monday at a naturalization ceremony held in the East Room of the White House.
Reith, who is executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, was honored by the White House as a Cesar Chavez "Champion of Change" for her organization’s support of immigrants’ rights and immigrant integration in Arkansas.
Reith and the other honorees "exemplify the core decency and generosity of Americans, by welcoming and giving voice to those that come to our shore. Whether through advocacy and civil rights, helping with housing and education, engagement in churches and communities, or simply by being a friend, the citizens we honor today embody the legacy of the great Cesar Chavez," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president.
As part of its community outreach program, the White House holds a weekly "Champion of Change" program at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where it shines a spotlight on local activists on a broad range of topics. The honorees participate in a panel discussion that is web cast. Typically, the president does not participate.
Reith learned during the panel discussion Tuesday morning that she and the other honorees would be taken to the Oval Office to meet with Obama.
The group was seated in the Oval Office on two plush couches around a sleek coffee table. The modern furnishings stood in stark contrast, she said, to the historical paintings hanging on the walls and the massive wooden desk used by Obama.
Behind the desk, she said, were photographs of the Obama family. Through the window, Reith said she could see playground equipment that she imagined first daughters Sasha and Malia played on when they were younger.
Reith thought it was curious that Obama was concerned more with how immigration reform would be implemented than whether it would become law. It seems, she said, that the law will create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
The question, however, is how long — and under what conditions — will citizenship be granted.
She said Obama indicated that immigration reform legislation would be unveiled sometime in early April. Several bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are negotiating proposals.
Reith said that over the past two months her group has been holding immigration town hall meetings to gather information about the challenges to citizenship that immigrants in Arkansas face.
She said there are concerns that the pathway could be difficult for those who have not paid taxes or who have faced legal issues as minor as unpaid traffic tickets. There is also concern that preferences won’t be maintained for keeping families together, she said.
During her panel discussion, Reith explained that the Arkansas United Community Coalition was founded in 2010 in response anti-immigration movements in Arizona and other states that members feared could spread to Arkansas.
"We didn’t want to wait," she said. "but to be proactive."
In the 2011 state legislative session, a dozen anti-immigration bills filed. None passed, she said. This year, the Legislature is considering legislation that would provide in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants.
Reith, 33, describes herself as Mexican-American. She was born in Wisconsin to a Mexican mother and American father and moved to Fayetteville as a child. After serving in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, Reith worked for 14 years promoting democracy to marginalized communities across five continents.
She returned to Fayetteville to be with her family.
Reith’s mother, Amanda, accompanied her to the Champions of Change program. She was also accompanied by Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and AUCC volunteers Andrea Gomez of Little Rock and Rosa Velazquez of De Queen.
"We are thrilled that AUCC is being recognized as a national leader and leading voice on immigration policy and advocacy," West-Scantelbury said.
The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation recently issued a report identifying Arkansas as having the fourth-fastest-growing immigrant population nationwide between 2000 and 2010.