‘Historic Figure’

Cecilia Munoz, Quarterback of Obama’s Immigration Reform Efforts

She’s been called tough, effective, and irrepressible—and Cecilia Muñoz is all that and more. Eleanor Clift on the president’s point person on immigration and the historic coalition she’s assembled to push the House.

07.29.13 12:05 AM ET

Her friends wondered why she didn’t quit when President Obama failed to push immigration reform in his first term, and now they’re wondering if Cecilia Muñoz, the president’s point person on immigration, has the political muscle to move bipartisan legislation to fix the broken system across a finish line blocked by House Republicans. An activist with the National Council of La Raza before joining the White House in 2009, Muñoz, who turns 51 on Saturday, got roughed up pretty badly in her community when she defended Obama’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, which resulted in a record number of deportations. Her friends are convinced she wouldn’t have signed on for a second term unless she had Obama’s unqualified backing and commitment.

“Cecilia is an historic figure in the White House,” says former Interior secretary Ken Salazar. As director of the Domestic Policy Council, the first person of Hispanic heritage to achieve the position, she coordinates the president’s agenda on the full range of domestic policies, though she is identified most closely with immigration. “This is a hugely important issue for the president and a cadre of people who work in that White House, including Cecilia,” says Salazar. “She’s tough and effective in the space assigned to her.”

And that space doesn’t generally include blocking and tackling with Republicans, a task better left to Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, when it’s done at all. Obama has so little leverage with House Republicans that White House strategy for now is to let outside groups do the pressuring while giving the leadership room to maneuver, much the way the White House backed off when the Senate was working its will in crafting a bipartisan bill. “While they feel they have to say ‘no’ out loud now, they’re trying to get to yes,” says an official familiar with White House thinking.

Muñoz gets high marks for “helping to create a united front,” says Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. and now chairman of global solutions with the Podesta Group. Sarukhán credits her with “marshaling civil society” in favor of reform and serving a “very important role as power broker. Cecilia played a central role in the agreement between labor and the U.S. chamber on temporary worker visas,” he says, calling it a template for the alliances Muñoz has put together among agricultural interests, the high-tech world, and the faith community.

“I’ve never seen a coalition like this come together,” says Salazar, who calls it “a strong alignment between key forces in American society to get something done.” He cites three Republicans in his home state of Colorado—Reps. Mike Coffman, Cory Gardner, and Scott Tipton—who he believes will be responsive to business, agricultural, and high-tech interests. “It’s going to be a hot August for these folks,” says Salazar. “Mike Coffman is going to be in the race of his life. We’re going to light a fire under him in a good way.”

Muñoz keeps a bookmark on her desk with 40 biblical verses identified by the National Association of Evangelicals as religious commands to welcome the strangers among us. Evangelical Christians are relatively new entrants in the battle for immigration reform, and they are a powerful force within the GOP. Over the last few days, the fallout from Republican Rep. Steve King’s comment that for every child brought to the U.S. illegally who becomes a valedictorian, there’s “another 100 out there ... hauling ... marijuana across the desert,” brought a hail of condemnation from Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner.

Hispanic evangelicals, who met with Muñoz and others at the White House this week and then went to Capitol Hill to meet with Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, reported that Boehner went to great pains to say King is not the voice of the party on immigration. Attendees were quoted as saying the conversation was warmer and more candid than they expected.

White House aides joke about taking bets on how many times the legislation will be declared dead before it reaches Obama’s desk. Muñoz has been around the block many times on the immigration issue, so she probably knows how hopes can be dashed. She was in the White House meeting with Bush officials the day before 9/11 to discuss how to get the reform effort started. She was a key driver as an outside advocate in forging bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain in 2007 and backed by President Bush. Then the political climate shifted, immigrant bashing flourished, and the bill never got a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Harry Reid had just begun his tenure as majority leader.

People forget that Reid wasn’t always the big supporter of immigration reform that he is today. In 1991, he and Muñoz appeared together on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, and Reid was no match for the young, passionate, and well-informed activist. “She just killed him in that interview,” says Frank Sharry, a longtime pro-immigration activist. And Reid knew it. When Muñoz got back to her office, the receptionist told her Senator Reid wanted to speak with her. He invited her to his office, and so began an evolution in his thinking that he credits to his wife, but Sharry is convinced Muñoz had a role too. He’s known her for 25 years, and he calls her a fierce, irrepressible, and effective advocate—also charming, not mean, not a screamer, very dogged, very persuasive, and very effective.

Born in Detroit, where her parents emigrated from Bolivia so her father could attend the University of Michigan, Muñoz couldn’t be more fully American, but has lived the slings and arrows that come with being a minority. When visiting the White House in 1997, twice she was asked to prove her citizenship. In 2000 she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work in civil rights. Now all her history is coming together. “She’s definitely the quarterback running the show,” says Sharry. It’s a task you could say she’s prepared for all her life.