Luis Perez found out he was accepted to law school shortly after learning there was a deportation order in his name. He is now the legal services director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
Columnist

New offices open and close all the time in Washington.

Usually it happens in subtle shifts — maybe a nameplate is removed and another added. Only when companies the size of Amazon.com or Apple speculate on coming to the area, carrying with them the promise of massive job opportunities and traffic headaches, do we notice (and then we usually beg and balk).

But last week a new tenant moved into the District, and it should make us pause.

Hours after President Trump hosted a California roundtable about immigration, where he focused on criminals and “animals” who had entered the country illegally, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place about two blocks from the White House in a building on 15th Street NW.

At that moment, with a symbolic slice of a crimson ribbon, the largest immigrant rights organization in California claimed a space in the nation’s capital.

For more than three decades, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights has stayed on its own coast. By opening a D.C. office now, the organization is sending an important and unmistakable message: The stakes in Washington are too high to fight only from afar.


Protesters hold up signs during a rally last year in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also known as Dream Act, near Trump Tower in New York. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

This in-your-face stance comes in the same week The Washington Post revealed that the government is considering housing immigrant children on military bases, a sign it is moving forward with plans to split families who enter the country illegally.

“Opening up an office is more than opening up a door,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said to the dozens gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It’s putting a stake in the ground in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, that says, ‘We’re here, and we’re not going away.’ ”

He called California “home to the resistance.”

Just a few hours earlier at the roundtable, Trump offered a different description for the sock-shaped state. He describes it as the site of “a revolution.” Residents there, he said, “want safety.”

The president and others at the table spent most of the discussion addressing horrific crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. They spoke of gang members, rapists and murderers. If a person had never met an immigrant before and had only heard what was discussed at that meeting, they could be excused for adding locks to their doors and clutching their children closer.

“They’re releasing these criminals, not by their houses,” San Jacinto Mayor Crystal Ruiz said. “They’re releasing them by our houses. Our children are at risk. My community is my family. You’re putting my family at risk.”

Trump’s “animals” comment came in response to a concern that Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims expressed about the difficulty in reporting suspected MS-13 gang members to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We have people coming into the country — or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” the president said. “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

A five-minute walk from the White House, on the third floor of a building that requires visitors to check in, there were no signs of animals. Or murderers. Or, to borrow an earlier Trump term, “bad hombres.”

There were men in suits and women in pencil skirts. There were hors d’oeuvres.

This was the picture of immigration left out of the roundtable discussion. Many of the people who came to the coalition event were immigrants or the children of immigrants who entered the country without proper documentation and had dedicated years of their lives to helping others. There was a day laborer who had organized men like him. There was the son of a garment worker who assisted young immigrants.

There was Luis Perez.

The 37-year-old holds a law degree and serves as the organization’s director of legal services.

He was 9 when he and his parents crossed the border from Mexico. He is well aware that children making that same journey today could face the possibility of being torn from their parents, and he said as a father, he can’t help but think of his 3-year-old daughter.

“Not only are you separating families, but you’re also criminalizing parents,” he said. In 2007, just before Perez was accepted as the first undocumented immigrant into UCLA’s law school, he opened his mail to find a deportation order. For 11 years, he fought that order.

In February, he finally became eligible for a green card.

Now that the coalition has an office in Washington, Perez said, it will be able to hold lawmakers accountable and allow immigrants to be more visible.

“There’s a tendency to think when things get really bad we need to go into hiding,” he said. “But that’s the time to step up and be on the front lines. We can’t go back into the shadows. We need to fight.”

There is no easy answer on immigration reform, which is desperately needed in our country. But, at minimum, the public deserves to see the full picture of who will be affected by the decisions the government makes.

It is easy to kick an animal out of your house.

It is harder to do that when it’s a person in a suit, or a maid’s smock, or a military uniform.