The Norman Transcript

February 18, 2013

Immigration aide seeks to finish journey

By Julie Pace
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Cecilia Munoz, President Barack Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, keeps a framed letter from the late Democratic senator and immigration advocate Ted Kennedy in her West Wing office.

“We didn’t complete the journey, but we’ll get there,” Kennedy wrote in 2007 following the collapse of bipartisan efforts to overhaul the nation’s fractured immigration system.

For Munoz, a veteran of that fight and many earlier ones, completing the journey has never felt more possible. As head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, it’s Munoz leading Obama’s effort to break through years of partisan gridlock and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living illegally in the United States.

“There is a definite lift in her step,” said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser. “But she’s not taking anything for granted.”

Sharp shifts in the political landscape have put an immigration overhaul tantalizingly close for Munoz and the president. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate in the November election, and Obama won two-thirds of their votes, in part because of the conservative immigration positions staked out by Republicans during their nominating contest.

The general election forced some GOP lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to comprehensive immigration changes, clearing the way for the swift consensus that has emerged between the White House and bipartisan lawmakers in recent weeks.

The areas of agreement include a road to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., strengthening border security, making the legal immigration system more effective, and cracking down on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

But filling in the details is expected to be contentious and emotional, with plenty of roadblocks.

USA Today reported Saturday that the White House is circulating a plan to create a visa for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. The proposal would allow them to become legal permanent residents within eight years.

Many conservatives oppose a citizenship path for illegal immigrations, calling it “amnesty.”

Few people know the obstacles ahead in the immigration debate better than Munoz, who spent two decades as an immigration rights activist at the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy organization. She earned a reputation as a fierce advocate with a wealth of knowledge of immigration policy, testifying frequently on Capitol Hill and providing guidance to several lawmakers, including Kennedy, D-Mass.

At times, Munoz has broken with her own party in order to fight for immigrants’ rights. In 1996, she led opposition to a provision in President Bill Clinton’s welfare law that made legal immigrants who were not citizens ineligible for food stamps and other public assistance. The lobbying by Munoz and others forced Congress to soften some of the restrictions.

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