How do You Solve a Problem Like Cecilia?

When president-elect Barack Obama named Cecilia Muñoz as director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, Latino nonprofits and media outlets celebrated. Her appointment was viewed as a sign of inclusion for Latinos in government and an example of our growing political power.

Given that Muñoz was the former senior vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR)—the largest national U.S. Latino civil-rights organization and a prominent advocate for immigrant rights—many expected that her advocacy would move with her into the White House.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, Muñoz has become the administration's Spanish-language mouthpiece on immigration policy. When answering questions about the rising number of deportations and detentions; the rapid expansion of immigration-enforcement programs like Secure Communities; and the failure to provide short-term, administrative relief in the absence of an immigration-reform bill, Muñoz sounds as if she is reading a script from the Bush era. She has called non-criminals who face deportation or have already been deported “collateral damage” and has repeatedly said halting some deportations via executive order isn't possible, even after 22 Democratic senators penned a letter to the president urging him to do so. As if reading from the Democratic Party's cue cards, Muñoz has joined the chorus of legislators who blame Republicans for Congress’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill or provide relief to the children of undocumented immigrants in the form of the DREAM Act. Most recently, she was quoted in a PBS Frontline special report, Lost in Detention, stating that “as long as Congress gives us money to deport 400,000, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Some independent journalists and organizations have targeted Muñoz for her complicity in sugarcoating the negative impact of Obama’s immigration policies on Latino communities. Presente.org currently has a petition demanding she come clean: The organization and signatories have asked Muñoz to return to her advocacy roots and renounce Secure Communities and other policies she is perceived as defending. Some, including progressive radio host Mario Solis-Marich, have called for her resignation.

“Being Latina does not give you a license to advocate for, and spin around, policies that devastate Latinas,” Roberto Lovato, co-founder of the Latino political organization, Presente.org, told New American Media. “Presente.org has attacked right-wing people like Lou Dobbs,” Lovato said. “Muñoz is out there talking about immigrants like she’s a Republican white man. The messenger has changed, but the message is the same.”

But other, more mainstream Latino civil- rights organizations have jumped to her defense. In an open letter signed by 18 organizations from across the United States, leaders say that while they too have criticisms of current immigration policy, they feel that targeting Munoz is counterproductive given her history:

We firmly believe that Cecilia has the understanding of the moral and policy implications of the current situation that is needed to repair the fabric of trust and hope in Latino and immigrant communities.”

One of the signatory organizations, the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), led by Angelica Salas, further defended Muñoz:

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.

In other words, let's not lose a high-ranking Latina—even if she actively works against the interests of our community. I question the motivations of organizations like CHIRLA for siding with political appointees over those they claim to represent. 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. Some of the signatories of the statement were also late in supporting the DREAM Act and the Uniting American Families Act—two measures that were seen as a distraction from the call for comprehensive immigration reform. The structure of the nonprofit world itself may also be a reason for these knee-jerk defenses; it's a tight community (for example, the secretary of the CHIRLAction Fund board and the board chair of CHIRLA both have ties to the Center for Community Change, which also signed the letter in support of Muñoz). With various executives working across organizations, it's no surprise that the nonprofit, immigrant-rights establishment has presented a united front in defending Muñoz.

As a Latina who called for Muñoz’s resignation in April of this year, I think it’s dangerous to refrain from criticizing high-ranking members of our own community simply because of their representational value. Muñoz's value for the White House is clear: As the 2012 election draws closer and the focus narrows on those elusive and mysterious Latino swing votes, Muñoz can put a Latina face on a “commonsense” immigration policy from an administration that has deported over a million people and plans to deport more. The question Cecilia Muñoz must ask herself is what’s more important: a political career that betrays her past advocacy or defending the safety and sustainability of immigrants as they face strident immigration laws?

It’s foolhardy for a community to pin its hopes on one of its own who has stepped into a position of power. When coming from nonprofit organizations, these hopes often have expectations of securing political favors and funding—priorities that trump the concerns of the barrios. Many of the organizations that signed on to a letter defending Cecilia Muñoz have also used the tagline “Change takes Courage” to challenge the Obama administration on its immigration policy. I would remind these organizations that change also requires actually doing things differently and not participating in the same old political power plays.

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