c.2013 New York Times News Service
MEXICO CITY — For two decades, Cecilia Muñoz was a fiery immigration rights lobbyist who denounced deportations, demanded change in Congress and once wrote of “that hollow place that outrage carves in your soul.” When she was invited to a White House briefing in 1997 on immigration, Muñoz, who was born in Detroit, was furious after staff members asked twice if she was a U.S. citizen.
But after a call from Barack Obama in 2008, Muñoz crossed to the other side to help push the administration’s promised immigration overhaul — only to find herself defending a border enforcement policy under which nearly 1.5 million people have been deported in four years. Critics denounced her as a traitor and demanded that she resign.
“She did become, in some ways, the face of the president’s policy,” said Angela Maria Kelley, a friend of more than 20 years and a fellow immigration activist.
Pablo Alvarado, whose day laborer organization repeatedly fought with Muñoz over the deportation policy, said she was “deployed to defend the indefensible.”
Now, as Obama is in Latin America this week as the first president in decades with a chance to get an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws through Congress, Muñoz’s loyalty in the face of her battering appears to have paid off. After four long years, she has helped Obama prod a reluctant capital toward citizenship for more than 11 million illegal immigrants.
“I don’t think we would have gotten this far without her,” said Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Muñoz, 50, the winner of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2000 for her work as a civil rights activist, operates out of a second-floor corner office in the West Wing, where she is an earnest, wonky presence known for her negotiation skills. Her title is director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, but her chief influence has been on what could be Obama’s biggest domestic accomplishment of his second term.
She has built support for an immigration overhaul with religious leaders, unions and business executives, has held online forums with workers who are in the country illegally, has appeared on Spanish-language television and has helped draft a bill that the president threatened to introduce if talks on Capitol Hill faltered. This week in Mexico City, she has been at Obama’s side in his meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto, where the immigration legislation is a central focus.
In the weeks ahead, Muñoz will have a crucial role in trying to keep the immigration bill from unraveling in the face of opposition from conservative radio hosts and Republican lawmakers, some of whom have seized on the Boston Marathon bombings as a reason to delay action.
“One of the great and poignant things for me is that the issues I’ve been working on my whole career, which are Latino community priorities, I’ve spent a career arguing that those are the country’s priorities too,” Muñoz said in an interview with The New York Times in January, part of an oral history of Obama’s first term. “They’re this administration’s priorities as well, and it’s an extraordinary thing to be working on the same set of issues on behalf of the country.”
Muñoz declined to be interviewed for this article.
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But after bringing credibility — and political cover — to Obama on immigration when she arrived at the White House in early 2009, Muñoz had her reputation as a fearless advocate for Latinos threatened by her defense of the president’s deportation policy. A little more than a year into the job, tempers flared to the point that Chris Newman, an advocate for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, shouted at Muñoz during a session in the Old Executive Office Building about the impact of the deportation policies on families. She retorted that he was obstructing the meeting.
At the end of 2010, she faced another setback: The Dream Act, a measure pushed by the White House to provide legal status for immigrants who arrived in the country as young children, failed in the Senate.
“The people who were crying got hugs,” Muñoz said in January, recounting how Obama consoled her and others after the vote. The president said, she recalled, “Think of the civil rights movement and how long those battles took.”
Her battles were taking a very long time. In 2011, Muñoz was the designated administration official to defend the deportations — which often separated children from parents — in a tough PBS documentary, “Lost in Detention.” On camera, she said that hundreds of thousands of deportations had been mandated by Congress, and she left unstated the reality that being tough on deportation was critical to getting Republicans on board with an immigration overhaul.
Her difficult position was not lost on her friends.
“You could see the pain in her face,” Kelley said, speaking of Muñoz’s demeanor under questioning in the documentary.
That summer, Muñoz helped the administration develop new policies aimed at making criminals and repeat border crossers the priority for deportation, but activists said they did little to stop families from being torn apart.
“If she was on the outside, she wouldn’t have been chaining herself to the White House fence, but she would have been in the president’s face,” said Frank Sharry, another friend and immigration activist.
It was not until last summer, only months before the 2012 election, that the administration agreed to defer deportations of the young immigrants who would have been covered by the Dream Act. Muñoz has never publicly said how much she pushed the White House to ease up on the deportations.
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Her past suggests someone more than willing to speak up. A daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Muñoz grew up in suburban Detroit, where her father worked as an automotive engineer at Ford. It was a comfortable life in a largely white community, where Muñoz saw herself as part of just “an American family” — until one day in 1980, when a good friend who was over at her house for dinner said he thought that the United States might someday go to war in Latin America.
“He looked me in the eye and told me that if it happens, he believes my parents belong in an internment camp just like the Japanese-Americans during World War II,” Muñoz, who was 17 at the time, later wrote in an essay for NPR. “My outrage that day became the propellant of my life.”
She earned a degree in English and Latin American studies from the University of Michigan, eventually became the top lobbyist at the National Council of La Raza and was married with two teenage daughters by the time that Obama offered her the White House job. She at first said no to Rahm Emanuel, the president’s incoming chief of staff, but reconsidered when Obama appealed to her on the phone the next day.
“He said that he wasn’t taking no for an answer, that he intended to make this as family-friendly a place as it could be, and that he wanted me to help change the country,” Muñoz said in the January interview.
Now, she says she is glad she said yes. Because of the 2012 election, “the Latino community has gone from being invisible in this town to being not only visible but clear agents of change driving the country forward,” Muñoz said, expressing her hope that an immigration overhaul might happen. “People feel empowered.”