Latinas Play Big Roles in the White House—But For What?
People involved with No Papers, No Fear protested at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. During Obama's time in office, more than two million people have been deported. Photo by Kris Krug, via Creative Commons.
This article was co-written by Adriana Maestas and Maegan E. Ortiz.
A basic principle of American democracy is representation. Our country is built on the premise that an elected government represents the way its citizens look, think, and act. It’s an important principle. “When people have the personal experience, when they look like you and talk like you, they are more likely to represent you. They have same cultural experiences or have faced the same situation,” says Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
But we all know it doesn’t actually work this way.
Latino men, women, and genderqueer folks are about 17 percent of the U.S. population. There are approximately 25 million Latinas living in the U.S, yet according to research by Latinas Represent (a joint initiative of Political Parity and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda) Latinas are underrepresented at every level of government.
During Obama’s two terms, the president has tipped that balance a bit by making high-profile Latina political appointments in the executive branch. These appointed individuals have, in turn, helped push a major Latino policy issue—immigration reform—to the front of American political discussion. But as the Obama administration continues an aggressive deportation policy, some Latino activists see the federal appointments as just a canny political strategy to ameliorate the pain of immigrant detentions and enforcement.
One of the highest profile Obama appointees who is purportedly representing Latino interests is Cecilia Muñoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council. To many Americans, she has become the Latina face of the Obama administration, speaking to the press and public about important policy issues, especially immigration.
Cecilia Muñoz recording the White House's Spanish Weekly Address. Via Instagram.
When Muñoz first entered the White House as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs in 2009, many within the immigration non-profit and advocacy world interpreted the appointment as a signal of Latina success, especially given her non-profit background. They viewed her as an ally. Muñoz is the former senior vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza, the largest national U.S. Latino civil-rights organization and a prominent advocate for immigrant rights. She was even named a MacArthur fellow for her civil and immigrant rights advocacy in 2000. Many assumed that pro-migrant advocacy would follow Muñoz into the White House.
In 2012, Obama appointed Muñoz’s to her current job as Director of the Domestic Policy Council amidst outcry over the administration’s aggressive deportation agenda. In the hopes that appearing tough on immigration would increase the prospects of passing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Obama administration rolled out immigration programs that deported more than two million people in five years—a far steeper rate of deportation than George W. Bush pursued. Meanwhile, despite a bill passing in the Senate last summer, the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform bill look bleak.
During all this time, Muñoz has had the task of defending the administration’s immigration policy in national media.
In 2011, when Muñoz was still the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Presente.org began a petition in response to Muñoz’s defense of the Secure Communities mass deportation program during a PBS interview. Some even called for Muñoz’s resignation.
Presente.org’s co-founder and former strategist Roberto Lovato says that when the group initiated the campaign calling on Muñoz to set the record straight on deportations, the organization was accused of being sexist and anti-Latina by some immigration advocates. It was a strong reaction that Presente.org’s targeting of the highest ranking Latina in the White House was perceived by some as sexist and anti-Latina, since there had never been a Latina in such a high profile position in any previous Executive Office of the President. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and one of most respected Latina leaders in the nation, even signed a letter of support for Muñoz after Presente.org initiated its action.
Recently, Presente.org renewed its campaign targeting Muñoz. Mariana Ruiz of Presente.org said that the renewal is a direct response to President Obama’s delaying a review of deportation practices by the Department of Homeland Security and a reflection of a shift in advocacy given that the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill seems to be going nowhere.
“With the surge of young people coming across the border, we have a crisis,” says Mariana Ruiz, Managing Director of Presente.org. “[Muñoz] has the president’s ear and is one of the most prominent Latino figures in the country, and she is not stepping up to solve the crisis right now. She continues to get in the way and is continuing to ignore what the community wants and needs, which is an end to deportations.”
What the community wants and needs though may be besides the point. Instead, the impetus for these appointments may be what the Obama administration wants and needs: the growing Latino vote. To borrow a phrase from West Side Story, it’s possible, if not likely, that the appointments were mostly about hiring “one of your own kind” to give the appearance of a Latino-friendly administration, even though the government's deportation policies have major negative repercussions on Latino communities.
“Watching Muñoz buffer President Obama from the growing discontent from Latinos often reminds me so much of how I felt watching Condoleezza Rice apologize for the Bush Administration's devastating failure during Hurricane Katrina,” says Paulina Helm-Hernández, Co-Director of Southerners On New Ground, an intersectional LGBTQ organization. “While the Obama Administration did not create our current immigration system and many of its problems from inception, they have done so much in the way of providing political cover for harsh anti-immigrant laws by President Obama's inaction on relief.”
Obama’s immigration policies have a disproportionate impact on women. Violence in Central America has created a growing influx of asylum seekers, predominantly women, some pregnant or with children. Nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors are being literally warehoused, sleeping on floors, awaiting the next steps in removal proceedings. This month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection have come under heightened criticism for the alleged abuse of unaccompanied immigrant children.
An anti-deportation protest took over the National Mall in October 2013. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian.
Another immigration policy that has disrupted families is a program called Secure Communities, which was initiated by George W. Bush's administration and has subsequently expanded by President Obama. The program was supposed to target “dangerous criminals” who are residing in the US illegally, but a recent New York Times investigation showed that about two thirds of immigrants deported have committed minor infractions or had no criminal record at all. Social justice advocates have also criticized the program for encouraging racial profiling by giving law enforcement a reason to arrest “foreign looking” people. In 2011, Muñoz called non-criminals who had been deported or detained via the Secure Communities program “collateral damage.” While she acknowledged that the current immigration laws are broken, she did so within the context of the need to continue the enforcement of those laws. Additionally, her defense toed the Democratic Party line of President Obama being unable to take executive action to end deportations, placing the responsibility of policy changes on Congress.
Latino advocates have raised the same criticisms of Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of the late farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, who has been working in the Obama White House since 2011. With the recent release of the Cesar Chavez biopic, including a White House screening of the film, national media has highlighted her role in the White House. Like Muñoz, Rodriguez has been one of the Latina representatives deployed to speak to Latino groups, ranging from bloggers to community members, around the country in the White House Hispanic Summits.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in 2013. Photo by the USDA.
Isabel Garcia, a Tucson, Arizona-based attorney with over 30 years of experience in immigration advocacy, saw Rodriguez speak at the White House Hispanic Summit in January 2012 at Sunnyside High School.
“When the White House was conducting their Hispanic summits a few years ago, they brought in some administration officials, including Julie Chavez Rodriguez,” says Garcia. “There was a great discussion on the division of families and immigration reform as a whole, and I focused on the growing criminalization of immigrants.” Garcia asked specifically about Operation Streamline, which swiftly prosecutes undocumented immigrants. “Rodriguez was defensive of the administration,” Garcia recalls. “She said that the administration was trying and when I challenged her about the criminalization, she said, ‘We just hired a slew of assistant U.S. attorneys. What do you want me to do? Fire them all?’ I said, ‘Yes, we should not be investing our money in the growing criminalization of our community.’”
The criticisms raised against Muñoz and Chavez Rodriguez raise the question of how much influence Latinas in the White House really have. Is there a possibility that long-time advocates like Muñoz and Chavez Rodriguez are pushing from the inside, away from the public eye? Part of their job is to spin whatever their boss, President Obama, is doing in a positive light. But if they are raising criticisms, are they being silenced?
“Do I believe that Cecilia Muñoz has attempted to voice the needs of immigrants? I’m sure she has, but has she changed what is going on and improved the situation in terms of criminalizing immigrants? The answer is no,” says Garcia. Bitch contacted the White House twice for comment about the roles of Cecilia Muñoz and Julie Chavez Rodriguez for this piece and received no response.
There is a hope that the women are pushing somewhat from within structures of power. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health’s Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas sympathizes with Muñoz and Chavez Rodriguez, based on her own experiences in politics. She recognizes that the political realm is still very much controlled by men.
“You are up against an old boys network that is well oiled and controlled by political hacks. I respect Julie and Cecilia. I think they are still up against a system that hasn’t embraced women of color leadership or pigeonholes women of color,” says Gonzalez-Rojas. “I think they are advocates, but it’s complicated.”
Muñoz probably had some influence in the announcement and creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives some undocumented youth a temporary reprieve from deportations, while the militarization of border communities and the criminalization of immigrants have continued to increase.
But others specifically see Muñoz as excusing the inexcusable and betraying her non-profit history. Helm-Hernández notes that Latino advocacy in America has a long and fraught history and that Muñoz's legitimacy stems in many ways from her work at National Council of La Raza.
“She climbed a ladder that was paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of thousands of other Latinas/Chicanas and brown women whose names we will never know, and for what?” says Helm-Hernández. “So she can serve as the Official Latina Apologetic face for an administration that has no real legal limitations in the way to bringing immediate relief to our communities.”
The solution to moving immigration policy changes forward and ending the mass deportations depends on who you ask. There remains a split among immigration advocacy organizations and activists on whether Obama can actually end the mass deportations or if the best solution remains in getting Congress to pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“I would urge the presidential administration to find any way to provide relief,” says Gonzalez-Rojas. “He can’t enact comprehensive immigration reform, but there’s a lot he can do to provide relief.”
As the Latina population continues to grow, some say that the community needs to move beyond simply looking at how many Latinas/os are in positions of power. Finding qualified Latinas to serve in the all tiers of government will not be as difficult in the future, thanks to work from leadership programs like Latinas Represent and the National Hispana Leadership Institute. As we can see in the cases of Cecilia Muñoz and Julie Chavez Rodriguez, representation is no guarantee of pushing from within for a change in terms of power dynamics.
Leisy Abrego, an assistant professor of Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, sums it up: “We still need to fight for social justice even if we are dealing with people who look like us. We will see more and more people of color in positions of power because we need to maintain a sense of equality and a sense of colorblindness in our society. We are so used to being in a society where we [Latinas] have been excluded from those kinds of positions, so when it does happen, we cannot turn off our critical thinking skills.”
Related Reading: Immigration is a Feminist Issue—We Need to Treat it That Way.
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