(Special from Daily Grito)
When Cecilia Muñoz, the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, came out last month on the PBS Frontline documentary, Lost in Detention, to defend the record setting deportations that have occurred in the Obama administration, some in the immigration advocacy community were appalled by the claims that she made — especially given her previous role as an advocate when she worked for the National Council of La Raza.
One organization, Presente.org, even made a public statement asking that Ms. Muñoz “set the record straight” along with a petition for community members to sign in hopes that Ms. Muñoz and the administration would clarify its remarks and acknowledge the devastation that the current enforcement policies are having on the immigrant and Latino communities. The claim that more than half of the people removed this year were criminals was one that was most widely disputed. And this has to do with how the administration has redefined “criminal removal” to more broadly include people who may have had minor offenses like marijuana possession.
On October 18, 2011, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released its year end removal statistics, stating that the agency removed 396,906 individuals, setting a record. ICE then explained that 216,698 of those who were removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors and then itemized the following: “This includes 1,119 aliens convicted of homicide; 5,848 aliens convicted of sexual offenses; 44,653 aliens convicted of drug related crimes; and 35,927 aliens convicted of driving under the influence.” But when these numbers are added up for the itemized serious offenses, one arrives at 87,547 people, or 22% of those removed for serious offenses. So ICE’s own data leaves people wondering why Muñoz and the administration insist that over half of the people removed were convicted of serious offenses.
Even before Cecilia Muñoz went on Frontline’s Lost in Detention, she was claiming that the Department of Homeland Security was prioritizing the removal of people and taking steps “to keep low-priority cases out of the deportation pipeline in the first place.” Many in the immigrant advocacy community thought this would mean that DREAM Act eligible youth would not end up in deportation proceedings. In fact, after Muñoz and the administration announced these changes, a college educated, DREAM eligible young man with no criminal record, Matias Ramos, was shackled with a GPS monitoring device.
While Presente.org highlighted the inconsistencies and asked that Muñoz clarify her statements (the organization did not ask that she resign or be fired), some immigration advocacy organizations signed a letter about the critique of Muñoz, citing her long history of working to improve the lives of immigrants. Writer Maegan Ortiz explains, “One interpretation is that these organizations are trading their values for influence. Many of the signing organizations have been criticized for softening demands for comprehensive immigration reform in order to stay within the good graces of Democratic legislators.”
And the call for comprehensive immigration reform has been one the Muñoz and the administration have reminded Latino and immigrant audiences repeatedly to the point where some grassroots advocates call it a “smoke screen.” Oscar Chacon, the executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American & Caribbean Communities out of Chicago, reasoned, “It’s not enough to say ‘We are committed to comprehensive immigration reform’ as Cecilia and the President have said while pursuing a path that has led us to a record of the most deportations ever. The call for comprehensive immigration reform has become a smoke screen.”
Kevin Johnson, the Dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law, who studies immigration law explained, “We have an administration that has deported the most people in history and is trying to justify the removal of ‘petty offenders’. The administration and Muñoz have pushed a policy of trying to look tough on immigration as a carrot for comprehensive immigration reform. The problem is that we have a lot of deportation and detention but no immigration reform.”
Johnson also stated that the credibility problem is bigger than Cecilia Muñoz and that he doesn’t think that the administration policies would change if she were no longer Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House. For him, the larger problem is that the administration has pursued a “deportation now and deportation forever” policy.
This week Presente.org sent out another open letter addressing the letter signed by organizations who felt that Muñoz was being unfairly targeted driving home the point that failure to demand accountability from her and the administration would undermine its commitment to its constituents. So far over 30 organizations who work on immigration issues have signed this letter from Presente.org demanding that Muñoz stop mischaracterizing the administration’s actions and portraying largely non-violent immigrants as “criminals.”
But at this point, Cecilia Muñoz has become the Latina face for anything immigration-related coming from the Obama White House. And even friends of the Latino community have a hard time swallowing her message. Bill Hing, an immigration lawyer and scholar, expressed, “I am very disappointed in the administration. I have known Cecilia for a long time, and I’m disappointed if she is behind some of the strategies that have been implemented.”
Given the softening support for President Obama less than a year out from the 2012 election in the Latino community, there are still opportunities for the administration to regain some of the lost credibility on the immigration issue, but that window of opportunity is tightening, and additional statements from Cecilia Muñoz may likely be received with a dose of skepticism.