Cecilia Munoz has to be the most frustrated official in the Obama White House.
A longtime civil rights advocate, she was a major player at the National Council of LaRaza (NCLR), a nonprofit organization established to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans. In 2000, the 44-year-old was named a MacArthur fellow for her work on civil rights and immigration.
Today, she's the president's chief adviser on immigration issues. Or perhaps we should say deportation issues.
When the PBS series “Frontline” did an hour-long piece on the immigration situation in the US today, it fell to Munoz to try to explain why the Obama administration is deporting 400,000 people every year and racking up the largest number of deportations of any president in American history.
The 400,000 were supposed to be “serious criminals” caught by a program called Secure Communities, in which anyone booked at a local police station has his/her fingerprints automatically sent to the database of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But people are also booked at police stations because of minor infractions such as a broken tail light spotted during a routine traffic stop, driving without a license, a ten-year-old bounced check – you get the idea.
These dangerous public enemies constitute half of all the “serious criminals” being deported. In the process, ICE is tearing families apart. It is deporting the parents of children born in the US – leaving the kids with relatives when possible, with public assistance agencies where not. Immigrants who may have been hard at work in the US for 20 years, raising families, who obey the law and contribute to their communities, and with no criminal record, suddenly find themselves imprisoned in an ICE facility, where they could remain for a week, a month or years. They have little due process, usually no lawyers and the women are routinely subjected to sexual harassment.
Maria Hinojosa, who anchored the “Frontline” program, asked Munoz, “Will the Obama Administration continue to oversee the deportation of 400,000 people each year?”
Munoz: “As long as Congress gives us the money to deport 400,000 people each year, that's what the Administration is going to do.”
She added: “We will be strategic about how we do it.”
Hinojosa: “Are you saying that there are 400,000 serious criminals who are not in jail now and who should be deported? Where are they? And how are you going to find them?”
Munoz: “The job of the executive branch of government is to implement laws passed by Congress. How we do it matters a lot, but there will be collateral damage. There will be parents separated from children.”
Collateral damage? It is mind blowing to think that Ms. Munoz is actually speaking for the president of the United States, who is likely off in the hinterlands, making speeches to reassure Latino voters that comprehensive immigration reform is at the top of his priority tree.
Getting even further down in the weeds, Hinojosa interviewed Michael Rozos, who recently retired as head of an ICE field office. She questioned him about how ICE goes about making sure that it meets its 400,000 p.a. quota.
Rozos: “Because the number 400,000 was what was agreed upon, what's happened is you pick up whatever you can – so the low-hanging fruit, the high-hanging fruit and all the fruit that's in between. You would pick up whatever you could and take your collateral apprehensions, which would be the other illegals that may be present when you're arresting a fugitive, and bring them into custody, as well, to get the numbers moved up.”
Hinojosa: “The pressure to move the numbers up was evident in an internal ICE memo last year. ICE was at risk of falling 'well under the agency's goal of 400,000 deportations,' the memo says. In particular, it highlighted the shortfall of 'non-criminal' removals. So basically, Washington is setting some numbers, and on the ground, if you're not meeting those numbers, then you're being judged by not meeting those numbers.”
Rozos: “You're being judged or you're being summoned to Washington. You know, you'll get this 'Be in my office tomorrow morning' and so kind of a thing.”
That's how ICE finds 400,000 “serious criminals” to deport every year.
And deporting 400,000 people is what the Obama administration believes it will take to somewhat blunt the incessant primeval screams from the anti-immigrant right – without completely alienating Latino voters, without whom Obama is likely to be a one-term president.
Having served in government, I can recall my bosses making decisions I thought were wrong. They put me out of sorts for a day or so.
But I have never before experienced a professional who seems so willing to abandon both his principles and the millions who voted to put him where he is.
Maybe I'm just being naïve about all the compromises you have to make to get anything done in Washington these days, but this is not the change I can believe in.