Cecilia Muñoz: Defending the Indefensible
Cecilia Muñoz used to be known as a fighter for immigrant rights. She worked on NCLR's policy team advocating for better laws in Congress. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2000 for her work on civil rights and immigration.
But then she took a job working for the most anti-immigrant president since Herbert Hoover. Each year he has been in office, President Obama has set a new record for deportations. He is on track to deport more people in one term than George W. Bush did in two. Maybe Muñoz didn't know what she was getting into in January 2009. After all, Candidate Obama sounded like an ally to immigrants back in 2008 when he was courting the Latino electorate:
the system isn't working when... communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel. When all that's happening, the system just isn't working.and
I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.You could parse Candidate Obama's statements to make them consistent with President Obama's immigration policies, but not many would believe it.
And that is Muñoz's problem now: her job is to defend the indefensible. She is paid to bamboozle the pro-migrant electorate so her boss can get reelected.
I doubt she sees it that way herself. Perhaps she believes the pain her boss is inflicting on immigrant communities is part of a larger plan. Maybe she fears things would be even worse in a Republican administration. Whatever her motives, that is the job she is doing now.
The White House is feeling pressure from current, rather than former, immigrant rights advocates. Journalist Maria Hinojosa's recent PBS documentary, "Lost in Detention," contrasted Muñoz's calm defense of President Obama's immigration policies with documented systemic sexual abuse of detained immigrant women. Last week, Presente.org, a Latino advocacy organization, blasted an email highlighting the gaps between public statements by administration officials and the reality of immigration enforcement in 2011. Presente put up an online petition asking Muñoz to tell the truth about President Obama's immigration policies and to renounce the Secure Communities program, which encourages local police to racially profile Latinos.
The White House immediately began pushing back through intermediaries, as they have done so effectively in the past. Several prominent figures in Latino and immigrant rights circles released a letter denouncing Presente's campaign to hold Muñoz accountable. Many of the signers of the letter have been part of the protracted failed effort to reform the immigration laws. They continued to support President Obama and Congressional Democratic leadership long after it became apparent that neither the president nor the Democratic Party intended to expend political capital on immigration reform.
In short, these advocates have little credibility on the issue. Their defense of Muñoz--and by extension, the White House--is little more than evidence of the administration's success in playing "good cop" to the Republicans' "bad cop."
The letter defending Muñoz reflects the fear that pervades the immigrant community, which has reduced many advocates to thanking the government for whatever scraps it throws their way.
Signers of the letter identified the key motives behind the defense of Muñoz:
To the extent that the Administration has begun to take some steps to address inappropriate immigration enforcement, we know that she has played a key role. Forceful advocacy on the issues that matter to immigrants is always appropriate, but we believe that personally targeting Cecilia is profoundly counter-productive.
While it is unfortunate she has to be one of the spokespersons for the failed Obama administration's immigration policy, we are not going to lump everyone together and lose the few allies we have in the White House.
These advocates worry that without Muñoz fighting for the interests of immigrants on the inside, things would be even worse. In response, I ask: How much worse do things have to get? How much worse can they get? What specific positive policies can these advocates point to for which Muñoz is responsible? If they know, are they willing to make that information public?
Meanwhile the spin keeps coming from the White House:
Luis Miranda, the White House's director of Hispanic media, said the Obama administration has developed "clear immigration enforcement priorities for the first time ever that include focusing on those with criminal records, a smarter approach from a law enforcement perspective that also better reflects our nation's values."
The immigration enforcement priorities to which Miranda refers were developed to allow the administration to thread the needle of immigration policy, deflecting criticism from Latinos on one side and conservatives on the other. The strategy has been to draw a bright line between "good" and "bad" immigrants, the former being the stereotypical hardworking, softspoken farmworker or dishwasher and the latter being what the administration refers to as "criminal aliens."
The problem is that cramming human experience into rigid categories usually fails. What if the "good immigrant" has to drive to work and is arrested for driving without a license because he can't get one without papers? According to the administration's policies, that person should be locked up and deported, which is just what ICE is doing to Cesar Hernandez, a Dreamer currently detained without bond in Michigan. What if the "criminal alien" is a refugee from genocide brought to the U.S. as a child, who had never even been to his country of citizenship because he was born in a refugee camp? That was the case of Chally Dang, who ICE deported to Cambodia earlier this year. (Chally was arrested at age 15 and tried as an adult in Philadelphia's troubled criminal justice system, which led to his deportation some 15 years later.)
Setting aside the conceptual flaws in these policies, the administration is not applying its own stated enforcement priorities. The American Immigration Lawyers Association recently conducted a survey of its membership tabulating the results of requests that ICE exercise favorable discretion on deportation cases in line with the administration's immigration enforcement priorities. AILA found that out of 56 reported decisions by ICE, only 23, or 41%, were favorable. Anecdotally, attorneys reported that ICE officials told them either that the administration's new policies didn't change existing guidance or that ICE was not bound by the new guidance. Some attorneys reported favorable responses, but these were far outnumbered by the negative interactions.
The administration gets little credit for announcing policies that its foot soldiers ignore.
Luis Miranda further stated:
Among these changes are reforms to the immigration detention system to prioritize the safety of detainees, the launch of a case-by-case review process to focus federal enforcement resources on the highest priority individuals, and improvements to the Secure Communities program to more effectively target criminals.
I represent immigrant detainees and have not witnessed the improved safety measures to which Miranda refers. Instead, every few weeks I see news of another person who has died in ICE custody.
In August, the White House announced that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice would conduct a review of all open cases in immigration court and decide which cases to prosecute and which to suspend in the government's discretion. Cases in the latter category would be put on hold, not terminated, with ICE reserving the right to reopen the deportation proceedings at any time and for any reason. Contrary to Miranda's claim, that program has not been launched anywhere in the United States. In the meantime, the administration deports over one thousand people every day, many of whom would likely benefit from the proposed review.
The Secure Communities program is fundamentally flawed and has been a source of sustained criticism of the administration from human rights activists. To blunt that criticism, the administration appointed a Task Force to evaluate the program and recommend reforms. The critics refused to be mollified by cosmetic changes, and the Task Force disbanded in contentious failure in August after releasing a report condemning the program. The administration announced its proposed program to review open deportation cases two days later.
The administration gets little credit for proposed policies it has not yet implemented.
The administration is stumbling from one empty promise to the next, hoping to distract and confuse the pro-migrant electorate long enough to secure their votes in November 2012.
"Arguments that suggest nothing has been done, even while we continue to try to make progress in Congress, are flat out wrong," said Miranda, who noted that the president has faced opposition from Republicans in Congress on key proposals that would have benefited immigrant communities, including comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act.Miranda is right, President Obama has done a lot while blaming the Republicans: he has deported more people each year than any other president, sent thousands of children into foster care, and continuously misled the electorate about his goals and actions.
If Cecilia Muñoz chooses to be a part of that effort, that is her right. But so long as she is, she is no ally to immigrant communities in the U.S.
[Image: PBS Frontline]