The highest-ranking Hispanic official in the Obama White House is being targeted as a traitor by fellow Latinos in a highly personal, ethnic-based campaign against the president’s deportation policies.
Cecilia Munoz, who was a longtime immigrant rights activist before being named President Obama’s director of intergovernmental affairs, has emerged as a key defender of the administration’s policies, directly rebutting complaints from Hispanic activists that the government has unfairly targeted harmless people and torn families apart.
Now, a petition drive by the grass-roots group Presente.org demands that Munoz “return to her roots” and retract the “inaccurate” statements she has made in defense of Obama. And a number of Hispanic bloggers are calling for her resignation, including one who branded her a “Latina spokesmodel for Obama’s immigration policy.”
The tension will be evident Thursday in Phoenix, where a group of illegal immigrants and their families and allies are planning to confront Munoz at a National League of Cities event where she is scheduled to speak.
Immigration advocates have been agitating against Obama since 2009, angry that overhauling immigration policy seemed to take a back seat even as he amped up enforcement. The administration announced last month that it had deported about 397,000 people in fiscal year 2011, bringing the total deported under Obama to more than 1 million — more than under any other administration.
But it is the activists’ recent decision to take on Munoz that has added a cultural twist to the debate.
The 49-year-old daughter of Bolivan parents has often been described as a ferocious activist unafraid to challenge lawmakers and presidents in defense of immigrants. And, at least until now, she has been a key voice for Obama in reaching Hispanic voters, who are viewed as central to the president’s reelection strategy in the must-win battlegrounds of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
“It appears that Cecilia has turned her back on the important legacy she left as an immigrant rights advocate,” said Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente.org. “Cecilia Munoz has made a 180-degree move from being a champion for immigrants to being the No. 1 defender of a horrendous immigration policy.”
A White House spokesman, Luis Miranda, said Munoz would not comment for this story. Instead, Miranda e-mailed a statement blaming Republican lawmakers for blocking immigration overhaul efforts.
The administration, he said, has made “dramatic improvements” in the country’s enforcement system. That includes policies ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to prioritize deportations of criminals, people who were deported and then returned, and recent illegal border-crossers.
Responding to criticism, administration officials in August pledged to conduct a case-by-case review of pending deportation proceedings and suspend low-priority cases such as those that would remove students who were brought to the United States at a young age — though officials concede that the review has not fully begun yet.
Concern on the left over Munoz’s role intensified in late October after she appeared in “Lost in Detention,” a documentary on the PBS show “Frontline” that examined the treatment of detainees held at Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails and that featured accounts of Latino immigrant families separated after mothers or fathers were deported.
The report echoed the concerns that many activists have voiced for years over a federal program called Secure Communities, in which people charged with state and local criminal violations are also checked for immigration status. Critics say many minor offenders are being detained and deported.
In a combative interview with journalist Maria Hinojosa, Munoz defended the administration’s actions, pointing to policy changes in recent months designed to prioritize deporting criminals and playing down the more sympathetic cases.
Asked to reconcile her advocacy background with the record of the administration she serves, Munoz responded, “We each have our responsibilities in this arena, and it’s important that everybody do their job wisely and well.”
Critics have homed in on Munoz’s assertions that more than half of those deported in the past year were criminals and that the government is focused on those who commit “serious crimes.” She and other administration officials say that the vast majority of deportees fell into high-priority categories.
But only about 75,000 of those deported — less than 20 percent — fit into the administration’s top priority tier, according to government data, meaning that they had been convicted of at least one aggravated felony such as murder or rape, or two felonies. Another 46,000 fit into the second tier, meaning that they had been convicted of a single felony or three or more misdemeanors.
All told, government data show that about 90 percent of deportees fit into the wider range of priority categories, including the recent border crossers and those who had been deported before, among others.
The Presente petition argues that a large share “of the ‘criminals’ [are] being deported for non-violent offenses.”
Hispanic organization leaders and immigrant advocates are debating the pluses and minuses of having their former colleague on the inside.
Some activists believe that Munoz feels conflicted. Gaby Pacheco, 26, who joined other undocumented young immigrants last year in a protest walk from Miami to Washington, said Munoz broke down in tears during a meeting with the group. Nevertheless, Pacheco said, she defended Obama.
“She should take a stand against what is happening,” Pacheco said. “It really pained me to hear her say that all this is just collateral damage.”
Janet Murguia, president of Munoz’s former employer, the National Council of La Raza, said she believes that her former colleague is probably staying true to her core views — even if her job requires a different public role.
“In some instances, she’s going to have to toe the company line,” Murguia said. “But that doesn’t mean that behind the scenes she’s not trying to advocate for the best possible reforms.”
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, described Munoz as “working really, really hard to try to change things” but added that “the results aren’t showing up.”
Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008 after pledging to make overhauling the immigration system a top priority. Several recent polls show that his approval ratings among Hispanics remain higher than among the overall population, but they are far lower than the share that many Democratic strategists believe he will need to secure reelection.
At the same time, party strategists believe that a record of strong border enforcement plays well with white independent voters, and Obama this year appeared at the border in El Paso for a speech claiming credit for a strong enforcement policy.
From the right, many Republicans have charged that the administration has failed to fully secure the border.
“Our policies have been simultaneously described as engaging in a mean-spirited effort to blindly deport record numbers of illegal immigrants from the country and alternatively as comprehensive amnesty that ignores our responsibility to enforce the immigration laws,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a recent speech. She added, “Two opposites can’t simultaneously be true.”