The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Cecilia Muñoz

Obama adviser

Cecilia Muñoz has been called Barack Obama's "conscience on immigration." As Obama's domestic policy director and the highest-ranking Hispanic official inside his White House, Muñoz played a central role in the administration's efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Muñoz, a former senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, was at Obama's side when immigration reform passed the Senate in 2013, when it died in the House in 2014, and when the president announced executive actions deferring deportations for nearly five million people.

In the following interview, she offers a view of the legislative battle from inside the White House. She says that even though there were enough votes in the House to pass immigration reform, too many Republicans were fearful of the political backlash.

"It's frustrating because we hurt ourselves as a country by failing to do what everybody ultimately wants to do," says Muñoz. "And it is enormously frustrating that the one reason we can't get it done is a political reason on the Republican side, and the president can't fix that because that is beyond what he as the leader of the Democratic Party can do."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 14, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with the 2004 speech in Boston, aspirational and biographical in lots of ways. We're not red; we're not blue; we're not black; we're not white. We're the United States of America. When you heard that speech, what did you think?

I'm a Latina. When I heard about-to-be Sen. Obama give that speech, I really felt he was talking to all of us and that he was expressing something really wise and something really aspirational, something that I think we all yearn for, which is the thing which connects us all as Americans rather than the things which divide us, which seem so visible all the time.

You're a person who's lived in America, knows a different world than I do, maybe even than he did. What did you think the likelihood was that it was more than aspirational?

I'm an optimist. I am wired to see the best in people. I think the president is wired in much the same way. I believe it's possible for us to be one nation and to move ourselves forward. We've done it over and over and over again throughout our history. There's times when we're not particularly good at it. I think we live in such a time. But it is something to strive for, because we really are at our best when we see ourselves as one people, and we're unique on earth, as a place, a nation which really comes together on the basis of a set of ideals rather than on race or tribe or ethnicity.

That makes us unique. It also makes us a great beacon of hope across the rest of the world. And, you know, we do our best when we are living out that particular set of values.

Were you at the inauguration?

I was.

Take me there. Make me understand how important it felt to you to be there.

In my particular case, I had worked at a civil rights organization for 20 years. Had no thought of ever going into government. The president asked me to come. I was named to the position of the Intergovernmental Affairs director in November after the election, to my astonishment. I was astonished to find myself leaving a job that I loved for 20 years to go into government, but I did it because it was this president, because I so firmly believed in him and in his judgment. And I knew this was going to be a historic time, not just because of who he is, but because of what I believed he was capable of.

The inauguration was an amazing experience. First of all, I had a houseful of people. Everyone I knew wanted to come and be part of this moment in history. The sense of possibility and the sense of pride not just that he had accomplished this thing, that we had accomplished this thing, is something I'll never forget.

You look at the pictures, as I do, of all the faces out there in that crowd. And we've looked to everybody from Eric Cantor and John Boehner to many people who were up on the stage, or whatever it's called up there. You see Aretha [Franklin] and you see [Rev.] Joseph Lowery, [who offered the benediction at the inauguration], and you see a sea of African American faces out there in the 2 million people or so that were there. It really did feel like hope was a palpable possibility at that very moment.

I've never seen Washington quite like it was that day. The streets were closed, and they were full of crowds and crowds of people, all kinds of different kinds of people, and you could tell, obviously an important moment in the African American community, and Washington, D.C., is a very African American city. But just the people who came and stayed in my house were African American, Latino, Anglo, gay, straight. They all felt that they had a stake in this, and you could feel that in the crowd.

The night of the inauguration, it's been well reported ... that there was a gathering of Republicans at the Caucus Room restaurant. They decided to just say no to basically everything he wanted to do. When you heard about that, what did you think?

... You know, I've been in Washington for 30 years now, so I'm familiar with the rhetoric that you hear from one side or the other. I've learned at some level not to take it too seriously because it's rhetoric, it's positioning, and I learned over many years of experience in this town that typically you also reach a point where, especially in a moment of crisis like the economic crisis that we were in when the president took office, where everybody does their posturing, but there's a moment where everybody gathers in the room and they make decisions for the good of the nation, and everybody understands you need to compromise to let it happen.

I wasn't shocked by the rhetoric. I was shocked by people's inability to get in the room and do what was right for the country; people's unwillingness to get in the room and do what was right for the country. I was working with governors and mayors in the first three years as Intergovernmental Affairs director and had governors on both sides of the aisle saying: "We need the Recovery Act. We need it to be big." They were obviously experiencing the economic downturn in a profound way.

My job was to get governors on the record signing a letter to Congress saying, "Let's get this done." Only four Republican governors stood up to do that, while many, many more were saying privately: "Look, we're going to need an infusion of Medicaid dollars. We're going to need an infusion of resources for this and for that." But only four of them were willing to say it out loud, were willing to sign their names to a piece of paper. That shocked me, because the impact of the downturn on people, on their lives, was real. You could see it; you could feel it. They could, too. They knew they needed the help. They weren't willing to say so, and that shocked me.

What's up with that, Cecilia?

I think the only way to understand it is people putting their politics, weighing their politics at least as carefully as they're weighing the impact of their public service, and it's always a disappointment at some level when people do that. At the end of the day, we got the Recovery Act passed, two Republican votes, and not with nearly the help from governors, especially on the Republican side. They were hoping we would pass it. They just, many of them, just didn't want to have to say they were for it because of the fear of the backlash.

And that sense of "If I do the thing that I know I want, if I say the thing that I want, that there will be political backlash against me," has stood in the way of a lot of progress and progress that we needed to make. It has cost us as a nation.

We've walked through the first four years with lots of people who were inside the Oval Office ... with the Affordable Care Act. We've been there and seen how hard it was to experience that Tea Party summer, the August of 2009 summer. ... That August, health care is stuck in the Congress. It seems like an incredible watershed moment for the president and for his closest advisers, that there's something going on in America that maybe you hadn't quite known was as large as it was about to become.

The yelling that took place that August, I do think we weren't fully prepared for. The Democrats in Congress weren't fully prepared for it, the people who were supporters of the Affordable Care Act. And of course none of us knew at the time that it foresaged a much bigger moment and movement. The extent to which the country is divided feels a little unfathomable, and it may feel easy to go back and look at it and see that it was developing at the time. We're talking about a movement which hadn't existed which was coming into being.

If you look back before 2009, you can see it developing on the airwaves. For example, you can see what looked like the seeds of it. I worked before the administration in Latino politics in civil rights issues, on immigration policy and issues of economic opportunity for people. The seeds of it on television, the seeds of it focusing on immigrants, on Latinos, on the communities that I was closest to, were evident earlier, dating back to the 1990s.

I think these are cycles that we go through as a country. We are in a profound one now. And what we do in those cycles matters a lot.

... By 2012, it feels almost like he's walked away from bipartisanship for a while to go fight that [health care] battle. He wins pretty dramatically, and now everybody seems to be saying, "It's time for immigration," him, the Republicans. The Republican "autopsy" happens, and they realize, "Hey, we need a different kind of voter if we're ever going to win a federal election again." Take me to that moment. It's the 2012 post-election world. Boehner is baring his neck and saying, "I'm here for you." Give me a realistic view of where it was from your perspective.

Let me start, though, by pushing back on the notion that the president gave up on bipartisanship even after the first term. We're in the last year of the administration, and we're implementing a bipartisan education bill that passed at the end of 2015. This president has continued bipartisan work where it was possible, where there were leaders on both sides of the aisle willing to work together, and that has remained true throughout the administration.

But it is true that in 2012, after the president was re-elected, there was this moment of clarity on the Republican side that the positions that Gov. [Mitt] Romney took hurt him, at least in the Latino community, and that the immigration reform issue, that it was time to address it and, frankly, on the Republican side, to put it behind them. So they did this -- they called it an autopsy on what happened in the election, and this was one of the foremost conclusions, was that the electorate, the country, is changing and that the Republican Party needed to be more open, especially to the Hispanic community, and that its positions on immigration, at least the ones that they had been taking for some time, were inconsistent with the possibility of success, at least at the presidential level.

What was the strategy you guys decided for the White House to employ?

Understand that in the Obama administration, we'd been working on immigration reform since the very beginning, since 2009. The president had meetings with members of the House and the Senate on both sides of the aisle. There was one famous meeting in which Sen. [John] McCain sat next to him. He tried everything to get a bipartisan group in Congress to start working on a bill and managed to get a couple members of the Senate to do principles, but not much more than that. So he tried mightily to get this debate going in the first term, really to no avail.

But in 2012, everybody understood that there was an opening, a political opening, because Republicans were ready to come to the conversation. And a group of senators came together, called themselves the Gang of Eight--four Democrats, four Republicans--to work on a bill. Now, we'd already drafted a bill. We'd done it years before in that, again, in the hopes of stimulating a legislative conversation.

But it was also true that it was important to these eight members of the Senate to own the product, so the president's marching orders to his team were very clear: "This is a priority. I want to get it done, and getting it done is more important to me than who gets the credit. I want a strategy that's focused on getting to a result, so if there are times where we need to be out in front, I will be out in front. And if it's better to be behind the scenes, I will be behind the scenes. Your job, team, is to focus on getting to the result."

So we supported the work of the Gang of Eight. They needed us to do it quietly, so we did it quietly.

Why? Why quietly?

Because we were aiming at the result, and it was pretty clear that these eight members of the Senate wanted to own the product as their own product and not as the president's product, which was fine. So we, frankly, passed them the language from our bill; in major sections of what they ultimately agreed to are things that we had drafted. So we get to 2013, and the bill comes before the Senate. We actually moved an entire team to the vice president's office--he has an office in the Senate--to provide technical assistance and any kind of support to the senators as they were passing the bill. We had quite a robust team actually living in the Senate office building to make sure that the folks passing the bill on the floor had everything they needed from us in order to get to the best possible product.

We had a strong bipartisan vote in June of 2013, a really quite solid piece of legislation. And then the next step was to get to the House.

You've been on the scene for this issue for a long time. When you were looking at the landscape in January of 2013, what did you think the likelihood was that it was going to happen given everything that had happened in the four years before?

I knew as a veteran of this issue, as somebody who was involved in passing a bill through the Senate in 2006 and then watching a similar bill fail in 2007, that these things are harder than they should be. But the political class was sure that immigration reform was going to be like falling off a log. There was a lot of commentary among the Washington press corps and others that it was so clear that both sides of the aisle needed to get this done, that there was a sense this is going to happen quickly and it's going to be easy. I knew it wouldn't be quick or easy,

Because?

Because it never is. There is always a coalition, a bipartisan one, that's mostly Democrats and a smaller number of Republicans. That's been true since at least the '50s, and that was going to be true this time. To a certain extent, passing an immigration bill is about getting the substance right, but it's also about getting to a vehicle that the leadership on both sides of the aisle feels comfortable putting forward and passing.

The Senate succeeded in doing that in 2013. They were hoping, actually, for an even bigger vote than they got, but we were well over 60 votes, which is a margin that you need to get a bill over the finish line, and it was quite a solid piece of legislation.

... Explain the Republican autopsy and why some of the things they discovered in there were driving them to the table in a way that they might not have been otherwise.

The Republican autopsy put into words something which has been really well known for a long time. It is not so terribly long ago, for example, that George W. Bush won the presidency not once but twice with a very strong showing of support by Hispanic voters. If you're a Republican and you're running for president, you need about 40 percent of the Latino vote. You don't need the majority, but you need to get to 40 percent. He got over 40 the first time and about 45 the second time. So this is doable by Republicans, and it's been done relatively recently.

But really, for a period before that era, but especially since that era, the Republican running for president has in the primary process moved to a much harder line. John McCain did that, which required reversing himself from the positions he had taken as the senator from Arizona. Subsequent Republican presidential candidates have done the same thing, and they've had the same result, which is a terrible showing by Latino voters, and a loss.

So the Republican autopsy in 2012 memorialized what had been really visible for quite a number of election cycles, which is that if a Republican is going to win, he or she needs at least 40 percent of the Latino vote, and it's really hard to engage the Latino community in a conversation about anything--education, the economy, whatever it is--if you've just spent a campaign trashing them or their family members or their neighbors who are immigrants.

This is a threshold issue, and because the rhetoric gets insulting, it's pretty hard to engage in a conversation with a block of voters who you've just insulted, or you've insulted their parents. So the autopsy fleshed that out and made the point, "Gosh, maybe we should stop insulting this electorate, this piece of the electorate if we expect to win," which had been true and obvious for quite a number of years.

... Were you at all concerned that even as open and certainly the imperative should be on their side that maybe, maybe it wasn't going to happen?

Moving legislation is always difficult, always. Immigration bills are no easier or more difficult, frankly, substantively than anything else. In fact, substantively, immigration bills are easier. Our problem with getting immigration reform done is not a substantive problem. At some level, everybody in this town knows what the pieces are that you need in an immigration bill so that it can pass. It's a political problem, and the political problem is always the same. The coalition that can pass an immigration reform is the vast majority of the Democrats and some number of Republicans, but not all of them, and maybe not even the majority of them. That's true. It's been true for decades, and it's true for the foreseeable future.

Moving an immigration bill means being willing to put up with the yelling which will ensue. That is always true. And the reason that that immigration reform is not law right this minute is because ultimately, the speaker of the House was unwilling to sustain the yelling from his own party in order to do the right thing.

So let's go to Boehner. One thing I missed along the way is there's this sense, certainly in the press--you correct it--that Obama was toxic enough that he couldn't really have his fingerprints on whatever the Senate, whatever the Gang of Eight was working on and that it kind of comes to a head as he's on his way to Las Vegas to make a speech, and you have to wave him off on not doing the talking points, or whatever the story is. True story? Explain the story to me.

The president's marching orders to his team were to do what we needed to do to have impact. And we were staying close to the people in Congress in both the Senate and the House who were reformers, who wanted to get this done, to kind of take their temperature about what they needed to do. There were times that they were asking him to be out front, and there were times when they were asking him to pull back. And we tried to be responsive, but frankly also tried to apply our own judgment as to what the moment needed.

There were times when the moment very clearly called for the president to stand up and say what he was for and to create the space for legislation to pass, which is what he did in Las Vegas and which some of his allies were nervous about. But after it was done, they also thanked him for having done it.

It's got to be hard for him to step back. Is it hard for him, do you think?

It's not hard for him to step back. What he wants is to get the job done. He knows Congress quite well; he served in it. On an issue like immigration reform, and really I've worked for him for seven years on everything, what he wants is to do our utmost for the American people and to get to the result, and he has a pretty good sense of when that requires out-front leadership and when that requires the kind of leadership that is behind others making sure that they do their part getting the job done.

And frankly, we calibrated that quite well on immigration reform, and the president took some heat from the immigrants' rights community for the times when he was hanging back. But whether he was in front of the cameras or behind the scenes was always deliberate and was always calibrated toward what was going to get to the outcome.

The politics of it are tough on him, yeah, because in the first term, there were lots of deportations; there was lots of action that the White House seemed to be on that side. Was that a bargaining strategy? What was that?

No. It's so interesting to me that people in the immigrants' rights world think of immigration enforcement and this administration's approach as some kind of bargaining strategy. It's not a bargaining strategy. The executive branch is charged with enforcing the law. We take an oath, and this administration's job is to implement the law, but also to make sure we were doing it in a strategic and thoughtful way. This is the first administration faced with the reality that there are 11 million people without immigration papers, who Congress has rendered deportable, has said, "We're going to actually establish priorities with respect to who we should spend our energy and our resources removing." So yes, large numbers of people got removed in this administration, and Congress allocates a lot of money to remove people.

But this is the first administration [that] said, "We're going to focus on people who were convicted of serious crimes, people who were recent arrivals, because part of our job is to enforce the border, and therefore, not on other people, people who don't fit that description," which is where you get the deferred action policy for people who were brought as infants, as children by their parents, who are growing up in this country and who know no other country but this.

They are almost by definition low priorities for enforcement. By establishing priorities, we also laid the groundwork for creating the executive action--we call it DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That has at this moment brought about 700,000 people out of the shadows and given them the ability to work and study and make their contribution.

To all the naysayers whose heads exploded at the thought of an immigration reform and at the thought of this deferred action policy, not only has the world not ended in the ensuing years, but these are successful, bright young people who are making a great contribution. They're studying; they're becoming teachers. It's quite an inspiring thing.

Great. So now let's go to the summer of '13. The Senate has said yes, it's over to John Boehner. Do you guys know what's going on in Congress? You know who's there and you know how it's been going. What's your strategy? How do you get it moving over in the House of Representatives?

... The president was in contact with the speaker, who made it clear that he intended to move immigration reform. The speaker hired the woman who had been Sen. McCain's staff person when we passed a bill in 2006, so he demonstrated a lot of seriousness, and he started having substantive conversations about what was going to be in a bill. And there was a group, a bipartisan group, in the House, a gang of I forget how many, who had been working for years and years on a bill. Several of them really had built strong relationships across the aisle, and they had been working on this for quite a long time, since before the Obama administration actually.

So we knew, the president knew, the speaker was engaged. There were good signs that they were having a strong bipartisan, substantive conversation. I met with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee on multiple occasions to sort of suss out what were they thinking, what support might they need from us. But the speaker never blessed anyone as being responsible for producing the bill. There was the chair of the Judiciary Committee who was in one place where the action could happen. There was this group, bipartisan group, that was negotiating legislation which was another place it could happen. There was the speaker's office itself with this policy expert which might be another place where it might happen. It was never quite clear who we should be working with.

But the speaker did take a set of principles that he drafted, his staff person drafted, to the Republican Caucus and got a very interesting reaction. My understanding--I obviously wasn't there at the Republican Caucus, but what my understanding about what happened is that generally the principles were very well crafted, and there was general support for yes, along these lines, this is legislation that we could pass. So that was the good news. The bad news was that the other very strong part of the reaction was, "But please don't do it now." So that--

Why?

Well, I think the Republicans in the House thought at the time, this is going to be uncomfortable, which is true. And, you know, politicians being politicians, they thought, well, this is uncomfortable now, so let's just not do it now; maybe later will be better. But what was abundantly clear to anyone who was paying attention was that 2014 was going to be an easier year than 2015 or 2016 because of the presidential process and the primary process, which for the last several cycles has driven candidates way far to the anti-immigrant right.

So 2014 really was the moment, but they didn't want to do it then, because it's uncomfortable. Well, it wasn't going to get more comfortable in 2015. So the speaker, I truly believe, and I think the president truly believes, was trying to maneuver to get to a place where folks could see the wisdom of passing a bill. And we were working very hard to make sure it was really clear. Anybody who wanted to stand up and vote for a bill on the Republican side or the Democratic side would have all the cover they need from faith leaders, from business leaders, from law enforcement officials. We spent years building a broad coalition with the explicit goal of what the picture in our minds was, when Republican X wants to stand up and say, "I'm voting for the bill," he's going to have a bishop and an evangelical preacher, and he's going to have a sheriff and other law enforcement experts and business leaders like that [who are] going to be standing with him or her in order to provide the cover that they need to be for what we know they want to be for.

All of that was available; all of that was ready. And the speaker kept saying, "I'm going to get there; I need more time." While that was happening, the president was under tremendous pressure from his own base, from the folks in the immigrants' rights movement, from the Latino community, to just do something on his own and give up on Congress, which is a frustrating place.

I was in some of my most uncomfortable meetings, or some of the most uncomfortable meetings I was part of, was the president pushing back on those groups and basically saying: "Don't take your foot off the gas on Congress. The right way to do this and the most effective way to do this is for Congress to act. You want me to act on my own, and I can't do what they're able to do. My executive authority does not extend as far as congressional authority. Don't take your foot off the gas." And those were some pretty uncomfortable meetings, and the president got called some names, frankly in public, but his focus was always on making sure that we created as much space as possible for the House to do what we needed them to do to get a bill done.

At the end of the day, we knew we had 218 votes for something that looked more or less like the Senate bill. We could name them; we counted them. The speaker never brought a bill to the floor. And when the speaker called the president to say, "That's it, we're not doing this," that was when the president then asked his team to develop a set of executive actions. But he waited until it was clear that it wasn't going to happen in the House.

Let's go back for a second and unpack Boehner's motives to the extent that you could see them and know them. While at the same time you're offering political cover, he doesn't have his members anymore, does he? And I think the president knew this through the Grand Bargain as well: Wait a minute; he's got a toxic waste dump going on inside his caucus.

The speaker had enough members to pass a bill along with the Democrats. What he didn't have was a majority of his caucus. There's a difference. We knew we had 218. That means the Democrats plus some number of Republicans. That is always true on immigration bills.

But he didn't want any Democrat votes, did he, like most speakers. They're like, aye, aye, aye.

Well, he, I think, was worried that if he took something to the floor that didn't have the majority of his caucus that that caucus might rebel against him, so a bill never got to the floor, and the impact of that for the country is serious and terrible. We're still left with 11 million people illegally in the United States, and we've now documented what that costs us in terms of job creation, [what] not having an immigration bill costs us in terms of job creation, in terms of reducing the deficit, in terms of growing GDP, in terms of economic growth. What an immigration bill accomplishes is very favorable on all of those fronts. It's one of the quickest ways we can accelerate economic growth in this country.

It has ever been thus that there's some number of folks on the Republican side who will yell, who will oppose, and they'll do it vigorously and loudly. And at the end of the day, the speaker wasn't willing to confront that, and that's why we don't have an immigration reform and we won't until Republican leadership in the future, whoever that is, is willing to endure a little yelling.

How does that feel to you?

It's frustrating, because we hurt ourselves as a country by failing to do what everybody ultimately wants to do. Nobody is for the status quo. We have a broken immigration system. Everybody agrees on at least that point. And fixing it is absolutely within our grasp. We know that that will create jobs; it will grow our economy; it will reduce the deficit. There is an endless array of good things that result from an immigration reform, and it is enormously frustrating that the one reason we can't get it done is a political reason on the Republican side. And the president can't fix that because it is beyond what he as the leader of the Democratic Party can do.

That Springfield speech [President Obama] gave after the State of the Union was remarkable in a kind of almost capitulation sense and being candid about what he couldn't do--this is on the top of that list--just plain not possible in the current political environment. What did you think when you heard him give that speech?

The president was speaking truthfully, that there are political challenges which prevent us from doing what he believes is the right thing to do. And in the case of immigration reform, there really is a bipartisan consensus on what we need to do. It's not universal; it's not 100 percent of the public or 100 percent of the Congress. Nothing is. But we know we have the majority of the public and frankly the majority of the Congress on something which the president could sign.

When you say that the speaker calls the president to say that it wasn't going to happen and that's when he went to executive action, what's the date of that? And can you give us more detail about the phone call, what he says to the president, how the president breaks it to you?

The speaker's phone call to the president happened in September 2014. The president called in his team and said: "Look, the speaker has confirmed with me that this isn't going to happen. I want you to pull together what I can do. I want to know what my authority is under the law and pull together a package of executive actions for me to take a look at."

Was he angry?

I have very rarely seen the president angry.

So not angry.

He's resolute. But he had waited to ask us to prepare executive actions until he was sure that the House wasn't going to move. So I know he was disappointed; I was, too. And the executive actions are tremendously important, but he will be the first to say they are not the equivalent of what Congress can do.

... So he does the executive action; courts get involved. What happens? Where are we now?

The executive actions have multiple pieces, all of which are in place except for the biggest one. So the executive actions included changes to our priorities and who we go after for deportation, some important changes to the visa system, a task force on new Americans that's helping people become citizens. All that is happening. The thing which got stopped in the courts was the expansion of the deferred action program for young people who were brought to the U.S. and the creation of a new program which is called DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents] for people who have been in the country longer than five years and have U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children.

We got sued, and as I'm sitting here, we're awaiting a Supreme Court decision on whether or not that can proceed. But at the end of the day, even if we are wildly successful in all of the president's executive actions, the need for Congress to act is still very, very vivid.

Was there a change in approach from the White House in these last two years? Because some people say it seems like the president has turned toward executive action, unilateral action, sort of given up on trying to work with Congress to build a legacy. Is that accurate?

The president's focus has been on making change, making policy for the interests of the American people wherever and whenever we can. At the same time when much of the conversation and debate in Washington has been about executive action, we had an opening on an education bill, and we passed a bipartisan one at the end of 2015. While there is a narrative that suggests that he gave up on Congress, where Congress was willing to do its job, he was a willing partner, and the education bill that passed at the end of 2015 is an example of that. But he is not afraid to use his authority in the interests of the American people where he has it, and that's what he's done.