When Sheri Cousineau wrote a letter to President Obama in 2015, she never imagined he would read it, let alone that it would be published in a book.
It all started with an article in the New York Times titled To Obama with Love, and Hate, and Desperation by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Interspersed throughout this feature are letters from the American people, chosen as one of ten letters a day (LADs) and read by the president. Laskas examined the letters’ authors, people working in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, and the president himself.
Later, Laskas published a book called To Obama. Printed in it are over 100 letters from Democrats and Republicans, adults and children, gay and straight, black and white. President Obama specifically requested that the letters be representative of everyone. He wanted letters from both people who agreed with him and people who hated him, to be truly in touch with how people were feeling. The book describes the letters as the “unfiltered voice of a nation.”
The way presidents have managed mail has evolved over the years. According to a New York Times article during George Washington’s time as president, he received so few letters that it was easy to read and respond to each one. Eventually William McKinley, president from 1897-1901, created the Office of Presidential Correspondence (OPC) because the volume of mail became overwhelming. President Nixon turned his nose up at letters criticizing him. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and the younger Bush all read mail occasionally, but President Obama’s intentional practice of reading ten representative letters a day was unique.
The Obama administration had about 50 staff members, 36 interns, and 300 volunteers who read through all of the 10,000 letters and messages (like emails) received daily. Particularly impactful letters were “sampled” and considered for one of the ten letters of the day given to President Obama. The director of the O.P.C was taxed with narrowing the few hundred sampled letters down to only ten. Obama couldn’t possibly read the 10,000 letters received daily from his constituents, but he still set aside time to learn about a few individual people and their stories.
Sheri Cousineau, my grandma, lives with her husband Steve on a small orchard in central Washington. One day, a man named Uriel came and asked them for work. They hired Uriel to pick cherries and apples in their orchards. He had a son, Uriel Jr., and a daughter, Janithza. Janithza was four at the time that my grandparents met him. Since then, their friendship has evolved to be very close. Sheri and her husband even attended Janithza’s high school graduation and took her on a celebratory trip to Canada.
In 2015, when Janithza was a teenager, her dad was picked up by ICE. Uriel was taken to a jail in Yakima and a detention facility in Tacoma before being deported back to Mexico. Janithza called Cousineau, sobbing, with no idea what to do. Throughout this ordeal, Cousineau tried her best to support Janithza and her family. She wrote a letter to President Obama, telling this heartbreaking story and asking for change. “I was hoping that he could work with Congress to help pass immigration reform which still hasn’t happened to this very day,” Cousineau said wistfully.
She only wrote one draft of the letter that would later be read by the leader of the free world. She said, “I just sat down at my computer and kinda poured my heart out.” She received a free copy of To Obama and read the whole thing.
Cousineau thinks the biggest effect of Uriel’s deportation on his family was overwhelming sadness. “I feel such sadness, like I have lost one of my sons, but the grief his family, mom, sister, brother are feeling is immeasurable,” Cousineau wrote in her letter. Around this time, Uriel Jr. was taken over by anger that his dad had been taken away, and ended up getting into legal trouble. Steve hired him part-time to help out around the farm. Now he’s involved with a career training program through Job Corps. Janithza’s job in an attorney’s office enables her to help other people with their own immigration problems. Maribel, Uriel’s wife, recently became an American citizen, so now all three of them can visit Uriel in Mexico. He drives a taxi and struggles with depression.
President Obama was a busy person, his days filled with meeting with foreign leaders, drafting tax bills with Senators, and attending fancy dinner parties. He lived in a bubble where it would be easy to forget about the real people affected by issues like unemployment, homophobia, and immigration like Sheri Cousineau. That’s why President Obama made the bold choice to read 10 letters a day from Americans of all stripes.