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Obama Advisor: Only Congress Can Permanently Resolve Immigration Problem

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Cecilia Muñoz is Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Cecilia Muñoz is Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Cecilia Muñoz is one of President’s Obama’s most trusted advisors. As Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, she has been instrumental in the administration’s efforts  to implement comprehensive immigration reform with or without Congress.

More recently, Muñoz has played a key role in the efforts to address the crisis posed by tens of thousands of undocumented Central American children crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. In an exclusive interview with WAMU 88.5, she addressed both issues.

The number of undocumented children and single mothers with children detained on the border was about 13,000 in July, half of the number of arrests made in the previous two months. Can you outline the steps you think have been most effective in stemming the tide?

Well, the most important steps that we’re taking have to do with the protection of the children that come into our care. It’s obviously an incredibly compelling thing for so many vulnerable children to arrive at the Rio Grande Valley, and so step number one was to make sure we were taking proper care of children from the moment they arrive so when they start, they end up in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol, which runs lock-ups that are no place for children. So we work as quickly as possible to make sure that HHS had enough shelter space for all the kids that were coming. And so we ended up opening three military bases as HHS facilities to provide proper care for children.

Our other responsibilities are really two-fold. One is to make sure that in processing the cases of the folks that are coming is that we honor any humanitarian claims. So anybody who might be eligible under the law for political asylum or for some other kind of protection, to make sure we have a process in place which gets to answers expeditiously on those types of cases.

And at the same time, it’s tremendously important that we send a clear message in Central America as well as in the United States, so the marketing that’s being done by smugglers is incorrect. The reason this year is so different compared to other years is that the smuggling networks are misleading people and marketing this notion that if they give the smuggling networks a lot of money to bring their child or bring them and their child that once they get to the United States, they can stay.

So the other piece of our agenda is to make sure that we send a clear message that people who come if they don’t qualify for humanitarian relief are removable and will be removed. We’ll remove them in cooperation with the countries that they come from. We’re going to make sure that we do this in a way that keeps people safe. But no one should put their children in the hands of a smuggler on the basis of the falsehood that once they get to the United States, they’ll be allowed to remain.

The administration announced it would schedule the deportation hearings of children and single-mother families detained at the border ahead of the nearly 380,000 cases backlogged in immigration court as a way to deter people thinking they could wait their turn here  for several years...

Dealing with that backlog has been of our objectives. But it is correct that the fact that the process takes so long, which is the thing that the smugglers have been exploiting. And so, we have been… you heard the president in the Rose Garden over a month ago directing DHS and DOJ to divert resources from the interior to the border to address the situation. That includes immigration judges. It includes asylum officers. It includes other officials who are part of this process. We’re asking for things like asylum officers and judges and resources to help provide council to these kids.

I’m sorry to say that when the Republican House passed its paired down version of the Supplemental Appropriations Bill, one of the things they took out was the Department of Justice’s request for resources for lawyers for these cases. And even as they approved our requests to reprogram funds in order to do what we can with the resources we got, the House Republicans have also denied the Department of Justice’s request to reprogram funds to provide lawyers. So we are trying very hard to make sure we have a process that, you know, that does right by the folks who in fact have reason to fear being returned.

As of last month, 37,000 children have been processed and released into the custody of their parents or sponsors, and nearly 6,000 of them are now in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Those children need schooling and a whole host of social services that local jurisdictions will now have to pay for. Some local officials and residents, even the ones who are sympathetic to immigrants  ask why should they pay for what is essentially a federal crisis?

Well, so this is an old story which is very much part of the phenomenon that this country deals with. And the fact that we have 11 million undocumented immigrants living and in most cases working in the United States without immigration status. This is a very big challenge that this president and this administration have been working hard to address.

So this situation of these young people is one very big and very important symptom of a much larger problem. And President Obama remains committed to addressing it. But he needs a little help from the Congress in order to address it permanently and effectively. He has said that he’s going to do what he can to fix what he can about what’s broken in our immigration system.

Speaking of addressing the broken immigration system, the White House has considering additional executive actions that could protect as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation — for example, the undocumented parents of U.S.-born kids and the parents of undocumented children now protected by the federal Dream Act. Why is the White House willing to incur the wrath of Republicans in Congress and many conservatives by acting unilaterally and, as some say, illegally?

Well, I can repeat what the president said in the Rose Garden some weeks ago, which is that the Speaker of the House informed him that he no longer intended to bring up an immigration bill. The president directed DHS and DOJ to come up with recommendations for what he can do within his constraints under the law to do what he can to fix what’s broken.

And while the agencies develop those recommendations, we’re also holding listen sessions with members of Congress, with other stakeholders to make sure we understand what they think is doable and desirable and what they think the legal limitations are. But it’s also clear that the president can do cannot compare to what Congress can do. Congress has the power to create a permanent solution here.

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