By Amie Parnes and Erik Wasson - 01/10/12 08:30 PM EST
President Obama has picked a strong advocate of immigration reform to head his Domestic Policy Council.
The White House announced Tuesday that Cecilia Muñoz, a former senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, would replace Melody Barnes at the top of the council. White House press secretary Jay Carney announced the appointment during his press briefing.
"The president has asked, she has accepted," Carney said.
Muñoz is an immigration expert who worked for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, until she joined the administration in 2009. The group works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans and advocates legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Obama has frequently been criticized by pro-immigration reform advocates for not pressing harder for changes to the country's immigration laws. Hispanic groups also have complained that the administration has stepped up deportations of illegal aliens.
All of this has led to questions about whether Obama will garner strong support from Hispanics in his 2012 reelection bid. It is crucial to Obama's reelection that he win a large majority of the Hispanic vote, particularly in critical swing states such as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado.
Carney called Muñoz "the best person for the job."
In her new role, Muñoz will become the president’s senior adviser on domestic affairs that fall outside the strict purview of the National Economic Council, which is headed by Gene Sperling.
“Over the past three years, Cecilia has been a trusted advisor who has demonstrated sound judgment day in and day out,” the president said. “Cecilia has done an extraordinary job working on behalf of middle class families, and I’m confident she’ll bring the same unwavering dedication to her new position.”
A senior administration official credited Munoz's work on immigration and disaster relief and said she has successfully brought the voices of local and state officials into the White House through her work at the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
"She's the perfect fit for this job," the official told The Hill. "This is someone who is very much ready for the position."
On immigration, she has been the president's "key person" on the issue "working to fix the system that's broken" the official said, adding that she brings 20 years of immigration policy with her to the post.
While her new post will continue to give Hispanics a "strong voice," administration officials said she wasn't given the position to pander to that community. "She's immensely qualified for this position. She's someone who is very much respected by her colleagues."
At the same time, "she's not afraid to make her viewpoints known," the official said.
The National Immigration Forum, which supports providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, applauded the Muñoz appointment while saying it underlined the need for Obama to take action.
"With this move, the pressure is on the president to move forward with an aggressive domestic policy agenda" on immigration," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. He said this agenda should include focusing enforcement on security threats and not on immigrant workers and families "caught up in a broken system."
The group later amended Noorani's statement to call on action by Congress as well.
"While Ms. Muñoz’s appointment is a positive step, at the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans in Congress need to come together to pass comprehensive immigration reform," Noorani said in the amended statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the appointment, saying Muñoz "has developed strong relationships with members of Congress in Washington and activists nationwide, and a sterling reputation as a powerful voice on behalf of comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform."
She said the appointment reflected Obama's "strong and ongoing commitment to diversity across his administration."
Barnes left her position at the end of last month and is looking for work in the private sector. On Monday the White House announced that Chief of Staff Bill Daley will soon step down and be replaced by Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew.
Carney said there is no word yet on who will replace Lew as Budget director. In the briefing he offered praise for congressional liaison Rob Nabors, a man insiders think has the best shot at the job.
—This story was posted at 1:27 p.m. and updated at 3:30 p.m.