Gabriel Sandoval, left, a White House adviser, listens to David Higuera, an aide to Tucson City Councilwoman Karen Uhlich, as he shares his point of view during a lunch-break meeting of the White House Hispanic Summit held Monday at Sunnyside High School.

BENJIE SANDERS / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Immigration and Mexican American Studies were among two of the emotionally charged topics discussed at an all-day summit hosted by the White House.

About 400 community members and local leaders took part in the talks held Monday at Sunnyside High School with federal officials on education, jobs and the economy, immigration and health care.

The Southern Arizona issues raised will be taken by administration officials back to Washington, D.C., where follow-up and action will be conducted as appropriate.

The Tucson stop was one of 12 meetings held thus far in communities across the country as part of the White House Hispanic Community Action Summit.

"At a time in Arizona when positive attention is very necessary, we're very appreciative of the White House's initiative to be here," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. "To discuss these very difficult, controversial issues we've been hearing about shows us a lot - that they're not running away from these issues, they want to confront them, and we're very glad that they are."

The agenda for the daylong summit was set by community members who also led the discussions.

TUSD MAS courses

One hot topic was the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies courses, which were eliminated earlier this month amid a threat from the Arizona Department of Education to cut off millions in state funding.

Supporters of the courses called for the civil-rights division of the U.S. Department of Education to take swift action in investigating the impact of a state law targeting TUSD's Mexican American Studies program.

"There's no question this is a significant issue; your comments have been heard loudly and clearly," said Mónica Ramirez, deputy chief of staff and senior counsel to the deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. "The civil-rights division believes in equal opportunity and fighting discrimination. I can't opine on the legality of the law, but we are taking your comments very seriously."

The crowd was not satisfied with the response that the allegations were being evaluated to determine whether an investigation is warranted.

"Time is of the essence here," said activist Salomón Baldenegro. "This program has been dismantled and once it's destroyed, it's very hard to rebuild, and we shouldn't have to do that. You have to go beyond evaluating. … Now you have to go back and do something, and come back and intervene because if you don't, this program is going to be destroyed."

Andrea Romero, a TUSD parent and University of Arizona professor, also urged the federal government to act on behalf of students immediately.

"What you see happening here is a result of a bigger issue in education across the United States, which is the fact that we have had this achievement gap for minorities that has not been addressed in public education," Romero said. "We had a solution, a great solution, and it's not only been dismantled, it's been stomped on."

She later said she could only hope that her comments would make a difference.

Carlos Romero, Upward Bound program coordinator at Sunnyside and Desert View high schools, was not that optimistic.

"In the end, I think it's just a show," Romero said. "It's an election year - that's what I think it's about."

Immigration overhaul

The topic of immigration was also emotionally charged, with community members and leaders recounting stories of racial profiling, families being torn apart in the name of deportation and frustrations that comprehensive immigration overhaul has not yet been achieved.

"Here on the ground, the reality is much more overwhelming than the people in Washington can comprehend," said Laurie Melrood, a family services consultant and immigration advocate.

Melrood's colleague, Katya Peterson, feels the discussion is much needed.

"I don't feel I made a change today," Peterson said. "But every time we talk and bring up these important issues, we make an impact."

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.