President Trump’s executive order reversing a policy he put in place ends an already discredited practice of separating children from parents at the border.
It also shines a light on the same challenge that his predecessor, Barack Obama, faced—though with less theatrical cruelty—of how to dissuade and ultimately deport the tens of thousands of desperate and deserving immigrants crossing the border every year, while still holding true to American values embodied in the Statue of Liberty.
Latino rights advocate Cecilia Munoz took heat from her community when she went into the Obama White House. Working in the government means compromise, and as she rose to become the director of Obama’s domestic policy council, she defended some tough decisions on immigration that on the outside, she would have fought.
“Because the choices in a situation like this are all terrible, I examined my conscience every day to make sure we were doing the right thing. I think that’s what you want a policymaker to do. The summer of 2014 was among the hardest in my life,” she says.
“The unaccompanied children crisis in 2014 was enormously challenging and enormously personal,” she told The Daily Beast in an interview reflecting on her experience on the front lines of the crisis then, how it was handled, and her dismay at what’s happening on the border today.
Immigrant issues are personal for Munoz, whose parents are from Bolivia, and whose husband is from India. She was a senior vice president at La Raza, a Latino civil rights advocacy group, before Obama brought her into the White House. She quickly found that when it comes to immigration and border control “policy options are difficult and terrible and unlikely to be effective in the short term.”
In 2014, a dramatic spike in the number of unaccompanied kids strained resources. “HHS (Health and Human Services) ran out of shelter space, and the kids were piling up in Border Control lockups.” Obama got hammered in the media “and appropriately so,” she says.
Visiting a border control lockup with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, she saw a mother holding an infant who was only a few weeks old. “We got criticism for detaining families,” she says.
The media’s coverage was blistering, with stories of incarcerated families, prompting Johnson to ultimately end family detention in favor of a sorting process to separate those with legitimate asylum claims from economic refugees – and he sought alternatives to detention. That’s how the “catch and release” program arose that Trump wants to end.
The Obama administration dramatically increased the number of ankle bracelets for electronic monitoring, and also engaged faith-based groups in the community to encourage people to show up for their court hearing, which could be many months, even years, in the future.
Working with faith-based groups was new. Munoz calls it a pilot project. She says the initial numbers were good, with well over 80 percent response. The Trump administration dismantled the program.
During the 2014 crisis at the border, Obama formally ordered FEMA to intervene. Munoz remembers lawyers from the various federal agencies convening at the White House over one weekend, and what a godsend it was that FEMA was there because they knew how to mobilize quickly. One of the government lawyers burst into tears. He’d been working all weekend, hadn’t seen his own kids and it was all very emotional.
“Everybody in the room felt we have to watch out for these kids, they’re our responsibility now,” says Munoz.
Obama expected his administration to do everything to get the kids properly placed, but the longer term challenge was the refugee situation in the hemisphere. “You can’t really fix it through border measures,” says Munoz.
It took two months to get Congress to approve money for the three Northern Triangle countries‚ Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras —the Central American feeder countries that are the source of most of the arriving families and kids. Vice President Biden was put in charge of the initiative, which included setting up refugee processing in the region so people didn’t have to cross Mexico in a long and dangerous trip to make their claim of asylum. The administration convinced Costa Rica to provide safe haven while claims were processed.
“We were trying to exert leadership in the region and get other countries to step up,” says Munoz. “All of that has been dismantled by the Trump administration.”
There were some signs of success. Munoz points to an opinion piece that ran in The New York Times in August 2016 headlined, “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer,” about Honduras and the importance of programs funded by the United States.
“You can’t fix it at the border. You have to address why people are coming, and you have to be able to exert international leadership, and America’s ability to do that has been blown to smithereens by this president,” she says.
The Trump administration was unprepared for the border surge this year after the numbers were down in 2017. The previous year, 2016, election year, saw a huge spike in families and kids, “but this time we stayed ahead of it,” says Munoz, and it did not make headlines.
The numbers were down in 2017 because people were frightened by Trump’s rhetoric, and the smugglers couldn’t convince them to come. When that didn’t last into 2018, the administration was confronted with a surge. “And they used a tool which is available to them, which we chose not to use, which is to do terribly inhumane things to people, and to prosecute everyone who comes across.”
That meant everyone coming across the border illegally is criminally prosecuted, and their children separated. “We didn’t use it because one, it’s not who we are, two, it doesn’t solve the problem, and three, it creates all sorts of other problems,” says Munoz.
Now at New America, a Washington think tank, Munos works on public interest technology. “I don’t do immigration at all,” she says, though she hopes the work she’s doing will help her community in the long run.
Munoz recalled a speech she gave to American immigration lawyers in 2016:. “What I told them is you can kick people like me out of office, but you’ll get people who don’t know what I know, and you’ll get an outcome that’s worse.”
Immigration policy is about deciding who gets removed, and how to enforce those choices. Immigration rights activists dubbed Obama the “Deporter in Chief” for policies they thought were too tough. “The slings and arrows didn’t really matter to him. He wanted to make sure we got the policy right. He knew there were tradeoffs and he was prepared to live with that,” says Munoz.
They were all mindful, as she puts it, that it is “inherently unfair for children in some parts of the world to be in different circumstances than in the United States, but at the end of the day, borders can’t be open. You have to find a balance.”
Asked about her former boss, President Obama staying on the sidelines, when so much of what he stood for is under attack, she notes that Michelle Obama retweeted Laura Bush’s column denouncing the separation of families at the border.
“A lot of people think Barack Obama could give a speech and fix this, and he’d be the first to say that won’t work,” says Munoz.
He struggled with the same issues that frustrate Trump today, and he too pleaded with Congress to pass immigration reform. Congress didn’t act. That’s why presidents sign executive orders.