WASHINGTON — When President Obama selected Cecilia Muñoz to be one of his top advisers in 2009, activists were elated: One of their own would be in Washington, driving major changes to U.S. immigration policy.
Five years later, that elation has hardened into something else — disappointment.
Sweeping change to immigration law is dead on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration has deported more than 2 million undocumented immigrants. Some activists are furious with what they see as the administration's slugged response to changing deportation policy, and hesitancy to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that allows some undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay.
And they were livid when the White House, in response to the crisis at the border, expressed openness to amending a 2008 sex-trafficking law that would expedite the deportation of many of the unaccompanied minors from Central America, who have crossed the border in recent months. The quiet, implied White House argument is that action is needed on the border before the administration announces a series of executive actions aimed at slowing deportations, people involved in those talks have said. At the center of that effort is Cecilia Muñoz.
It's an old and painful Washington story: an accomplished outsider with deeply held beliefs ascends inside an administration — and then must defend it.
"She is in a very difficult position: a ferocious advocate who is loved by the field goes into the White House and becomes the point person for policies and strategies that have provoked a tremendous amount of anger and disappointment," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice. "It's very easy to ask: Why hasn't she resigned in protest? But I trust that at every critical moment she has thought, I can do more on the inside."
Until her appointment, Muñoz, the daughter of Bolivian immigrants, served as the director of research and advocacy at the National Council of La Raza and was considered by grass-roots activists as one of their own. At the NCLR, she'd fought against deportations and aggressively pushed Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration law.
"When she went to the White House I remember going to a celebration. I was so happy, we all were," recalled former Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, who served in the House until 2012 and was an active member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "My dealings with the White House — as far as any issue the Congressional Hispanic Caucus may have had — all roads would lead to Cecilia."
Senior administration officials say Muñoz is still in regular contact with activists, and has been key to some of the most consequential decisions on immigration – a part of her portfolio as the director of the White House Domestic Policy council.
She's at practically every meeting with key constituencies on and off the Hill. She's the main liaison between the administration and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the group of Hispanic lawmakers that has pushed the White House to do more on executive actions.
Congressional lawmakers would not go on the record to talk about tension with Muñoz, but the main source of frustration that over the years she's fallen more in line, at least publicly, with the president's way of thinking at a time when many of their own members were willing to criticize Obama.
"I have never once heard her say anything behind closed doors that was different from what the administration was saying to the public," said one CHC member. The clearest example of the schism between Muñoz's past life as an activist and her current role perhaps came when the current NCLR president, Janet Murguía, called Obama the "deporter-in-chief." Some groups have focused their ire specifically on Muñoz: For instance, the Latino group Presente formed a petition to have Muñoz "set the record straight on deportations."
"Muñoz … is trading on her credibility in Latino communities and access to Latino media to disingenuously minimize expectations about what the Obama administration can do to provide relief for the millions living in fear of deportation," the group wrote.
"Our feeling is she has the president's ear," explained Presente's Managing Director Mariana Ruiz. "She is a very high-ranking Latino in his administration and we think she is not really representing most Latinos because most Latinos at this point are really interested in ending deportations ... and we just feel like she's not doing right by the majority of Latinos."
There are signs NCLR and its former top activist have patched things up since then. The White House — which did not make Muñoz available for an on-the-record conversation — suggested Murguía as a person to talk to about Muñoz's job performance. Murguía acknowledged that there's been tension between NCLR and Muñoz since she left, but broadly praised Muñoz and said repeatedly that anything the White House has done that NCLR likes in the past five years "has had Cecilia's fingerprints on it."
Murguía said she saw DACA — Obama's executive action halting deportations against most DREAMers — as a product of Muñoz's influence. Murguía said Muñoz has helped increase the number of Latino voices in the president's near orbit as well.
"When it comes to the cabinet, and the fact that there is now three cabinet members who are Hispanic in the Obama administration, I know that internally that's been something that Cecelia's been involved in," Murguía said. "[She] has worked closely internally in making sure that diversity and inclusion are represented in the president's cabinet."
Murguía harkened back to her six-year stint in the Clinton administration (she served as a top adviser to the president from 1994–2000, an era when many Democratic activists were frustrated with the White House) to say she understands the different pressures and responsibilities of a White House staffer versus an activist working outside the system.
"In government, you have a responsibility to govern and to implement and execute the laws, and to also find as much consensus as is possible so you can build as much support as possible towards your goals," she said. "When you're in a different role, out here on the outside, you're primary objective is to have your perspective represented in any sort of outcome."
"You have more latitude when you're on the advocacy side to do that," Murguía added. "Sometimes you don't have all that latitude on the inside. You want to get an outcome, you want to get a win. … It's a real pressure cooker in that way."
The shift from outside agitator to inside bureaucratic lever-puller is a tough one, and there probably has never been an activist group that felt the government was moving fast enough on an issue that mattered to their constituency. While Muñoz's résumé has made her both embodiment of immigration activists' hope about the Obama administration as well as their frustrations with its accomplishments, activists are aware that working inside the system is very different than poking at it from the outside.
"I have incredible respect for anybody who works in government, local, state, federal. Whether they're answering the phone or advising the president. You know, the folks in government are making real decisions, they're facing real pressure," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "And, frankly, those of us on the outside, the most important decision I'm going to make is whether or not to send a press release."
And Muñoz's defenders on Capitol Hill say it's unfair to compare her work at the NCLR to the White House and they still consider her a deeply principled advocate for immigrants.
"I think she's carried her principles with her. Her constituency is different obviously. At NCLR it was the board and the members, as a Latino advocacy organization. At the White House her constituency is the president, the administration and the American people," said Rep. Joaquín Castro, a Texas Democrat that has known Muñoz for years. "I think she's stuck to her principles but being part of an administration you're also going to be part of a negotiation that goes on because you are part of a larger team. Part of your job is to make the case for the positions that the administration agrees to take on."
The NCLR's Murguía, like other activists, pointed to the White House's promised slate of executive actions on immigration, set to drop later this month, as Muñoz's moment to prove the frustrating years were worth it. If the still-secret executive actions are as robust as they're hoping they will be, the activists say, they'll have Muñoz to thank for it.
"We've been disappointed with the pace of progress on immigration reform and with the record rate of deportations, there's no question," she said. "But I will point this out, because it's important to note that right now because of the potential for administrative action on this issue, Cecilia is poised to be a big part of something potentially historic and I think that they're looking pretty skillful these days on this and her future contributions may be much more important than what happened so far."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at email@example.com.
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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