In the early 1960s, Kristina Arriaga‘s father was a destitute Cuban refugee living in Miami. The penniless émigré scrimped and saved so that he and his wife could feast on pancakes and sausage links at a nearby International House of Pancakes.
“That was my father’s dream,” said Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Inside the restaurant, her father ordered the 99-cent all-you-can-eat special in muddled English. When the waitress returned to the table with a mug of root beer and a slice of apple pie, Arriaga’s father decided at that moment that the family would move to Puerto Rico.
Notwithstanding the travails of her father, Arriaga not only speaks flawless English but has assimilated fully into American society as head of a well-regarded public-interest law firm. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has received media attention of late for its advocacy on behalf of the owners of Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain, who are seeking an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on the grounds that it violates their religious freedom. The Supreme Court is expected to decide later this month whether to hear the case.
At the Becket Fund, Arriaga’s role is to “crystallize” legal concepts for the general public, she said. “I’m a communicator, not a lawyer.” Although the law firm has been embraced by the conservative establishment, the Becket Fund does not take a position on highly charged issues like abortion. “We like to say we represent cases from Anglican to Zoroastrian.”
Raised in Puerto Rico, Arriaga was inculcated by her parents with a love of all things Cuba. “My childhood was completely abnormal,” she said, with a laugh. “I grew up eating Cuban food, reading the Cuban encyclopedia, and singing the Cuban national anthem every day at 4 in the afternoon.
“My father thought his exit would always be temporary, so he spoke with great passion about returning to Cuba to fight for freedom. He was hoping the Fidel Castro regime would only last a couple years.”
After graduating from Marquette University, Arriaga was hired by the Cuban American National Foundation in Washington. “I thought that if my father couldn’t go back to Cuba and liberate it then it was my job to do so,” she said.
Later, Arriaga served as an aide and interpreter for Armando Valladares, U.S. ambassador to what is now the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She would at times accompany him to the Oval Office, where her duties extended to amplification. “I didn’t realize [President Reagan] was already deaf at the time, so I wasn’t just translating, I was yelling.”
In the early 1990s, Arriaga vaulted into the public consciousness when she helped stage an airplane rescue of a family in Cuba. About a year before, a MiG-23 pilot had defected from the troubled Communist regime. With $35,000 from a donor, Arriaga purchased a twin-engine Cessna, which the defector then flew to Cuba and landed on a coastal highway where his wife and two children were waiting. The incident, which was chronicled by Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest, had direct consequences for Arriaga: Shortly thereafter, her car was set on fire in the middle of the night.
In the latter half of her career, Arriaga served as an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under then-Secretary Jack Kemp, followed by a four-year appointment to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She joined the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 17 years ago.
The 49-year-old, who holds a master’s degree in liberal studies from Georgetown University, is married and lives with her three children in Alexandria, Va.
What We're Following See More »
As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.
President Obama's Clean Power Plan, a large pillar of his efforts to leave a lasting environmental legacy, "goes before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today." The plan "imposes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants." A number of consolidated cases finds 27 states challenging this plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in February pending decisions from lower courts. The states will argue that the government doesn't have the right to impose restrictions requiring them to shutter plans and restructure full industries.
There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.
As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.
At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.