Mickey Ibarra served as assistant to former President Bill Clinton and was the director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. He was born in Salt Lake City to a Mexican father and American mother, but grew up in foster care. Before beginning his career in politics, he taught at-risk high school students in Spanish Fork. In March, he donated his collection of photographs, correspondence and other memorabilia documenting his career at the White House to the University of Utah Marriott Library. He also recently gave a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on his journey from schoolteacher to public servant, the importance of being involved politics, and the issue of immigration.
How does a high school teacher end up working at the White House?
My road to the White House was paved by the National Education Association, the teachers union I had the privilege of working for for 16 years of my professional career. But actually it started sooner than that: The person who sparked my interest in government, public service, campaigning, elections and our great democracy and the need for engagement was my high school government teacher, Mr. Steinberg.
I had the privilege of attending high school in Sacramento, the capital of California, so government and politics were certainly available to students who wanted to engage. Mr. Steinberg would provide extra credit for attending a city-council meeting, a school-board meeting. It was Mr. Steinberg who gave me extra credit for attending my first presidential campaign rally and major speech; it was delivered by Hubert Humphrey in 1968 at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. And as I heard him speak, I can tell you it sent tingles from my toes to the top of my head. And it was that interest established in high school that propelled me to decide that I was going to figure out a way to engage in public service. And it also provided the seed for wanting to first do that as a teacher. So I was a political-science major at BYU with no intention ever of attending law school. I wanted to be a teacher. And I had an opportunity to do that for five years starting as a teacher at a public alternative high school.
This was back in the late ’70s when alternative high schools were brand-new thinking. And to think that a very conservative, small, little community in Spanish Fork, the Nebo School District, would have the foresight and the courage to recognize they were losing children from their large Spanish Fork High School. And that they needed to separate some students from that experience and provide them with intensive attention. Many of the students I worked with were suffering from “maturational lag” is the term that I invented. Kids are expected to all grow up at the same time and they just don’t.
That teaching experience led to my political experience with the Utah Education Association. I was a first-year teacher and attended my first national convention of the NEA as a delegate with the UEA. When I walked in that auditorium in Minneapolis and saw 15,000 of my colleagues in convention, many of them of color, it got my attention. This is the organization that I want to be a part of.
And that led to my involvement with the Board of Directors of the UEA, the political-action committee of the UEA, the legislative committee of the UEA, that’s what really prepared me then to transfer to the NEA in a professional capacity. They eventually hired me as a union organizer. I went from a volunteer to a staff member. So I left the classroom, really had a great experience at the UEA, finally becoming their political manager, which put me responsible for leading the charge of the NEA to endorse Bill Clinton in 1992 for president. We were fortunate enough to be successful. I served then as the liaison to the White House for that first term. Became even more acquainted with the president’s staff, and those close advisors around him, then served in the staff of the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign in 1996, posted up at the headquarters in Washington, D.C., and with our re-election, again the first Democrat to be re-elected president since Franklin Roosevelt, I was invited then to serve at the White House as the assistant for Intergovernmental Affairs.
How did the time you spent in Utah influence your career at the White House?
Certainly the values that I was taught in Utah, I think translated to my experience in every position I’ve held since. I learned the basics of honesty, integrity, hard work, the value of education. I think those are basic core values that I was fortunate enough to embrace as a young man and as a boy. I think, secondly, that I was very motivated to ensure that I was going to be successful at something. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but I was sure I wasn’t going to live my life being felt sorry for because I wasn’t in a traditional family or a traditional home.
I also believe that Utah is not the Beehive State for nothing. They are a hard-working group of folks; they value education. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of good folks. So while I’m not a member of the Mormon church, I was surrounded by Mormons, and as a little boy was a Mormon. Because all 8-year-olds, when you’re living with a Mormon family, you become a Mormon. There’s not much choice involved in that, really. And yet while I was disaffiliated with the church many years later, I believe I benefited from the foster parents in Utah, Provo specifically. I certainly benefited from the experience at BYU. And was able to then establish, I think, the foundation that I was able to build upon, and eventually led to my opportunity at the White House. And I say luck, I’ve had a lot of good luck, and that’s important. I like to believe good luck is the intersection of where opportunity and preparation intersect. I prepared myself for that opportunity. Did I ever believe that an opportunity to serve the president would come my way? No. And is anybody ever fully prepared to be at the White House? I don’t think so. But I was prepared to be asked, and I got that chance, and here we went.
What are you donating to the library and what can viewers learn from it?
I think students of government will find a fairly significant snapshot—nearly four years of my experience at the White House. Every single memo that I wrote to the president is in the collection. Notes that that president sent back to me are all part of that, so you can see the back and forth of what we were dealing every single week. This memorandum to the president was due every Friday, before I left the office, and by Tuesday, I would have back in my inbox from the staff secretary’s office, with his notes in the margins. Now, sometimes it a little difficult to decipher his handwriting, but with some patience, you can do that. You can see that dynamic of the back and forth. Secondly, you also have an opportunity to see the operations of a major office in the executive office of the president: the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, charged with the liaison responsibility for all local and state elected officials, which in my case was also all tribal governments, all 534 federally recognized Indian nations. And in addition to that, we were responsible for all U.S. territories, which meant Puerto Rico, the Mariana Islands, Guam, all of them. So you can see how it is that we, the Clinton administration, engaged our partners in government. You can even see the organizational chart—who was responsible for whom—how did we organize this. You also see how we reached out beyond our office of nine folks into the office of every department and agency. Nearly all of them have an Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. You’ll see that every two weeks, every Monday at 4 p.m., at the White House, we would sit down for an hour, all the directors of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, would be convened by me, to talk about two things: What are we doing to build support for the president’s policy initiatives, and how is it that we are responding to the concerns of our partners in government. And what can we do, what can President Clinton do, what had we ought to be doing to be doing more? What can we do to helpful to you? What are you hearing out there? That’s all chronicled. And 1,400 visual images. You can see the interaction: meetings, events, you can see all of that that’s happening every day. That’s just another indicator of what life is like there.
Why does the United States need immigration reform?
The issue of immigration is personal to me. It is more than a debate around public policy; it is personal, given my history. My father came to this country as a bracero in 1945, and his first labor camp was in Spanish Fork. My father was undocumented for 30-plus years, even though he served in the U.S. Army, had his own business. You don’t need to be documented to make a contribution. And everyone should be documented. But what we’ve got is a system that’s absolutely broken. It actually encourages people to come here without documents, because they’re not going to wait in line for five years to get a visa to come work here if their families are in need of help now. Who would do that? So, yes, that’s an issue that remains a priority for me, and I’m very troubled and concerned about what I see happening—states, including Utah, taking off on their own to decide what immigration law is going to look like. The most extreme case in Alabama, where they’ve turned teachers into immigration agents who can turn children in and their families in if they suspect that they may be undocumented. They have given license to racists in this country who now are emboldened to do the unthinkable. A nation trying to turn back the clock to the Jim Crow days of the ’60s and ’50s and earlier that I thought we had addressed. That’s very unfortunate and not up to the standards that America ought to be all about.
What misconceptions do people have about immigration reform and immigrants?
First and foremost, that these folks are taking away our jobs. We hear that all the time: “They’re taking away our jobs.” That’s just nonsense. They’re not taking away anybody’s jobs. Ninety percent of them are doing jobs that none of us would do. Talk to the farmers about how important these workers are to them helping them harvest their crops—to make a profit, to stay in business. So that’s one of the misconceptions. The United States needs that labor; they need that workforce. And without it, they’d be in very difficult circumstances.
I think the second thing is that “They’re just here to freeload; they’re taking down benefits from us”—again, silly. I would say, as a class, there are no harder-working people in the world than the Latino community in this country. They’re not here to freeload, they’re not here to get something for nothing; they’re here to make a living. And are there exceptions to that? Of course there are. But I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of those residents in this country, who are without documentation, would love to figure out how to become documented. And the vast majority of them are also being taxed, and paying their taxes. If we’d come to our senses and document these folks, we’d even realize more taxes from them, and that would be a good thing.
What concerns me is we have so many people giving license and cover to racists. I’m not suggesting everybody who opposes immigration reform is racist. We have a right to protect our border. That’s a responsibility that we have. And that’s what argues for comprehensive immigration reform so we can secure our borders. We’re not going to secure our borders simply by building a taller fence. That’s not going to work. It’s got to be a combination of things, and my hope is that I’ll live long enough to see our country embrace a comprehensive approach in order to deal with this issue. It was Ronald Reagan who was the last president to try and deal with this in a responsible manner, which included providing more than 3 million undocumented residents with amnesty. So if Ronald Reagan can get it done, I’ve got to believe that we ought to keep hope alive for that, too.
What would successful immigration reform look like?
In its broadest context, one, we’ve got to provide for security, to be sure. Two, we’ve got to figure out a sensible visa program that allows for demand to match the supply. Something that’s reasonable. Asking somebody to wait in line for five years so they can come here and work as a dishwasher is nuts. So we’ve got to figure that out, that whole ebb and flow of the workforce—that’s a big piece of it. [Also] how do we deal with at least 11 million undocumented residents now? Do we really think we’re going to ship that 11 million back to the country they came from? I don’t think so; it’s just ridiculous. We’re not going to do that, it’s not possible to do that, and it’s stupid to do that. Should there be a penalty [for being undocumented]? Absolutely. Should there be requirement for them to learn English? That’s fine. Should they be responsible for paying their taxes and all that sort of thing? Absolutely. Should they have to show proof of employment for five, six years, whatever it is, yes. But those criteria can be set, and where they’re met, there ought to be a path to being made legal residents of this country.
It may not be possible to adopt comprehensive immigration reform; I do think it’s possible for us to make incremental progress. For me, step one is addressing the Dream Act: the idea of providing a pathway, an opportunity, for youngsters who were brought to this country by their parents and no responsibility whatsoever for being here without legal status, and have done the right thing and graduated from high school, ought to be provided the opportunity to continue their education here. And if they graduate and stay out of trouble, be provided a pathway for citizenship—that ought to be an easy one. So I’m all for taking a look at taking a bite of the apple rather than trying to swallow the whole thing. It seems to be the Dream Act is where we ought to start.
How do Utah’s immigration laws measure up to the rest of the country?
My understanding is that Utah isn’t the worst. In fact, Alabama’s laws are considered right now to be the very worst. I do think that Utah law was calmed down a bit by the Utah Compact; I thought that was an admirable effort by reasonable men and women who understood that our nation, in many respects, is going to be judged on how we treat people who are disadvantaged, people who need our help. And my sense is that the Utah Compact got it right, with principles that ought to guide us in terms of how we treat immigrants in this country. The Utah Legislature, I think, fell short of that, but I do think it helped moderate the legislation to some degree.
Why is being a mentor to young people important to you?
When [my brother and I] rejoined my father at age 15, my father was very busy in his own business as a hair stylist. And he was single, so it was just the three of us, and my brother and I were largely on our own. And I think in many ways, folks could have classified us as disadvantaged, at-risk, all of those labels, and in some respects that wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it was instilled in my brother and I, both that we were going to do all we could to be helpful to others who may not have been cut every opportunity or provided every opportunity that a lot of kids get. We ended up being OK, and a lot of others could be, too. I felt very strongly that teaching is a way that you can help youngsters who maybe have not had every advantage, maybe just need a safe place to grow up a little bit, and provide them with the encouragement and the example that they, too, can succeed. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you—it can, if you prepare yourself for the opportunities that will be provided to you as a result. Life can be good. My own life’s circumstance put me in a very unique position to be helpful and credible with kids that need a helping hand.
Why is it important to be involved in politics?
When people disengage from their civic responsibilities, when they check out, others check in. And unfortunately that seems to be too often the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum. And that’s not good. What we need to do is have every citizen of this country embrace the responsibility that they have to engage. This is a democracy. Democracy requires participation. It’s very important to ensure that we engage, that we register, that we vote, that we support candidates who reflect our views and that we hold them accountable for doing the right thing for us, rather than simply reflecting the views of, in many cases, an extreme minority. Some suggest that we get the government that we deserve; I think we deserve better. And to get better, we’re going to have to do more engagement.
What’s your favorite part of being involved in politics?
Helping people; putting people first. That was the theme in 1992 of Bill Clinton: putting people first again. And that’s really what makes politics and public service one of the most noble endeavors of all. When it’s understood that your core responsibility is helping people accomplish all they can with their God-given talents, helping them overcome the obstacles to success, helping someone has a great reward that I enjoyed at the White House. I was in a position, and I realized that—that very few people get an opportunity to do—to help someone.