(CNSNews.com) – An 18-year veteran of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), who advocated for federal legislation to give the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship, has been tapped for President-elect Barack Obama’s White House staff.
Cecilia Muñoz, who currently serves as senior vice president for the office of research, advocacy and legislation at the NCLR, will serve as director for intergovernmental affairs in the Obama administration.
“We’re continuing to build a White House team that can rise to the challenges facing this country,” Obama said when he announced the appointment of Muñoz and Jonathan Favreau as director of speechwriting last week.
“And I couldn’t be more excited to announce Jon and Cecilia. I’m confident that at a critical time in our history, this White House will restore openness and accountability to our Executive Branch and help to put government back in the hands of the people it serves,” Obama added.
In her new post, Muñoz will be responsible for managing relations between the Obama administration and state and local governments. She is a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from Bolivia.
Muñoz, 46, said in an essay aired on National Public Radio on Sept. 26, 2005, that the anger sparked by what she considered a racist remark about Latinos made by a friend when she was 17 shaped her successful career as an immigration activist.
“My outrage that day became a propellant of my life, driving me straight to the civil rights movement, where I’ve worked ever since,” Muñoz said. “I guess outrage got me pretty far. I found jobs in the immigrant rights movement. I moved to Washington to work as an advocate. I found plenty to be angry about along the way and built something of a reputation for being strident.
“I’m deeply familiar with that hollow place that outrage carves in your soul,” Muñoz said in the National Public Radio essay. “I’ve fed off it to sustain my work for many years.”
Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told CNSNews.com that the director of intergovernmental affairs will play a critical role in the next administration, but it is a role that may be difficult for Muñoz to fulfill, given her background.
“Her affiliation with La Raza taints her ability to represent the broader national interest,” Dane said. “La Raza exists as a way to systematically dismantle enforcement and any semblance of discipline in the immigration system. Are we to believe that she is going to distance herself in her new role to represent the broader national interest?”
But Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told CNSNews.com that he thinks Muñoz’ activism gives her the skills needed to work with a broad range of interest groups.
“I think it’s incredibly reassuring that Obama has chosen (her) for this important role,” Noorani said. “I think she will push for a progressive consensus that will serve the president and the White House well.”
Muñoz, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Latin American Studies from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, was an advocate for President George W. Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform proposed in 2007.
At a speech at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in March 2007, Muñoz spoke about how the public, including the media, did not understand the NCLR’s goal of economic equity and social justice for immigrants.
“My organization in particular gets challenged, especially in the media,” Muñoz said. “I’m not just taking about talk radio or Fox, but even CNN. We get portrayed as a radical, U.S.-hating, brown beret-wearing separatist organization hell-bent on retrieving the Southwest United States for Mexico, which is really silly.”
She said previous attempts at immigration reform in the United States failed because legislation took a “hostile’ approach to solving what Muñoz said is “one of the most important domestic policies of our time.”
She cited legislation passed in Hazelton, Pa., for example, which made renting property to illegal aliens against the law, and road blocks on Georgia highways “because local police had gotten into the business of immigration enforcement.”
“They thought, ‘If we round people up, if we make the climate hostile, undocumented immigrants will go away,” Muñoz said. “So if you happen to look Mexican and you’re driving down the highway in Georgia, you’re very likely to be picked up by these road blocks.”
She said people were detained for days and even weeks because they couldn’t prove they were U.S. citizens.
Muñoz said she supported comprehensive immigration reform that required people who are in the United States illegally to come forward, prove they have no criminal record and are paying taxes, pay a fine, start to learn English, and then be put on a path to citizenship that would take about 10 years to complete.
“We’re not rewarding illegality,” Muñoz said. “We are asking (illegal immigrants) to earn something and we’re asking them to pay a fine. And then we need to move on.”