From age 8 through his years as a Stanford University student, Dr. Charles Ogletree, the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard University, labored in the fields with his migrant-worker parents.
“We worked in everything from walnuts and almonds to peaches and grapes and cotton and lettuce,” Ogletree says. “When I started college, I still came back summers … working at ‘swamping’ watermelons — taking them from the field, tossing them from person to person.”
He worked with Hispanic immigrant farm laborers. “My father’s generation was jealous because they saw these people who wanted to do the work they were doing — for much less pay and less security,” he says. “There was this sense of cultural tension.
Those of us who were youger saw it as a way to create a more inclusive society.” Those memories partly inspired Ogletree to join a fledgling inter-faculty effort to debate Harvard’s future approach to immigration studies.
Early in the tenure of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, there was a faculty push to create a Latino studies or immigration studies center. His administration nixed it.
Ogletree hopes there will be renewed interest. On Dec. 1, 2008, he hosted the first meeting of the Immigration Policy Steering Committee, coordinated by Edward Schumacher-Matos, a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Fifteen faculty members came from seven schools.
Harvard psychology professor Margarita Alegría, director of the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research, was thrilled to join the group’s monthly meetings.
She says the group is a “dream team” with potential as “an important Harvard think tank that could come up with new ideas and even action plans for an immigration reform agenda. Independently of what it’s called, I’m more interested in seeing what it could do.”
Schumacher-Matos says it’s premature to say whether the group will seek to establish an immigration studies center.
Ogletree expects the group will make recommendations to the administration this year. He hopes that a push for an immigration studies center is part of it. He cites the work of centers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Texas and New York University’s immigration studies program.
“I can’t speak for the group, but my sense is there is both some value and some need for a program — and those that have been created at other institutions have been thriving in their contributions to the rich intellectual dialogue on campuses around the country,” Ogletree says.
Ogletree’s opinion matters — even with those at the pinnacle of power.
He was a senior campaign adviser for President Barack Obama. Ogletree was professor and mentor to Obama and his wife, Michelle, from the time they were Harvard law students.
In an intimate gathering after Obama’s inauguration, Ogletree decided to take a more formal approach to the mentee who calls him “Tree.”
“I called him ‘Mr. President’ and he looked at me and laughed,” says Ogletree, who will address his former student that way —unless he decides some first mentor advice is in order.
“If we’re in a room one-on-one and there is a need for some tough love, words might be a little more precise and direct and more meaningful. I think, given his schedule, he’ll hear more from me (than me from him). I’m going to let him know if something needs to be done. But I’m not saying he’ll always follow my advice.”
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