Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
In Dialogue With the President.
In Washington, D.C., there are many ways to figure out if you are important. Being serenaded by the leader of the free world on your birthday is a good one.
It was March 19, 2012, four days after her 37th, and Eva Longoria had flown into the nation's capital for a meeting at the W Hotel, right across the street from the White House. Many of the nation's top Latino advocates and activists were going to be there. So was Barack Obama. Longoria & Co. had come to speak on behalf of the community: to press the president on comprehensive immigration reform; to push for passage of the DREAM Act; to explain, as Longoria tells Newsweek, that Latinos "didn't just want to be courted at election time. They wanted real results." Obama, meanwhile, had come to listen.
But before the group could get down to business, the president had a message of his own for Longoria. After Obama was elected in 2008, the White House had asked the actress to help study a proposed Latino-American museum in the capital. By 2011, she was hosting fundraisers in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York for the reelection campaign, and the following year saw her barnstorming in swing states and speaking at the Democratic National Convention. "The president and Eva have a relationship of longstanding mutual respect and admiration," says Henry Munoz, a San Antonio businessman who in 2012 headed up Obama's Latino fundraising group, the Futuro Fund, and now serves as the DNC's finance chairman. "He knows that she is a serious person."
And so, as Obama entered the sleek dark-wood-paneled conference room, he wheeled a big birthday cake in front of him--and began to sing "Happy Birthday." The rest of the attendees immediately joined in. Longoria enjoyed the warm and fuzzy reception. But she wasn't about to go soft--to waste "this unusual, privileged opportunity to have a dialogue with the president," as she puts it. So when, later in that meeting, Obama began to equivocate on immigration, blaming Congress for failing to pass the DREAM Act, she pushed back. "But Mr. President, you have to do something," she said.
Spurred by Longoria's challenge, the conversation turned to the possibility that Obama would move unilaterally to reduce the threat of deportation for young immigrants who were brought to America illegally as children--a step the Latino community very much wanted him to take. The nation had been torn over the issue for years. After President George W. Bush's comprehensive reform effort collapsed in 2007, the right retreated into send-them-home-and-secure-the-borders fundamentalism, while the left became largely passive on the issue, with Obama himself famously promising (and then failing) to "strongly" support an immigration bill in the "first year" of his presidency. Now Longoria had a warning for the commander in chief: if and when you finally decide to protect the DREAMers, she said, make sure to speak from the heart. "At a critical point in the meeting, Eva turned to the president and said, 'Mr. President, the way in which you make this announcement will be just as important as the announcement itself,'" Munoz recalls. "It was her training talking: 'Your message has to be emotional, intergenerational, and show how this has a real substantive impact on families.'"
Three months later, Obama strode into the Rose Garden and announced that his administration would be granting relief to as many as 1.7 million immigrants who'd otherwise be subject to deportation--"these young people who study in our schools ... play in our neighborhoods, [are] friends with our kids, [and] pledge allegiance to our flag." "Clearly, what Eva said struck a chord with him," says Munoz. "I think she had a real impact."
No one who first encountered Eva Longoria as Miss Corpus Christi in 1998, or as Isabella Brana on The Young and the Restless from 2001 to 2003, or even as Gabrielle Solis on Desperate Housewives from 2004 to 2012, would likely have predicted that the petite actress would become a political and philanthropic powerhouse. …