Biden pick creates furor, underscoring bitterness over Obama immigration policy

Immigration advocates are livid over the Biden transition team’s addition of Cecilia Muñoz, a former Obama administration official who was the public face of that administration’s immigration policy.

Muñoz, who once served as the head of former President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, was named by the Biden campaign Friday as part of a group of eight new senior transition advisers.

The pick was quickly criticized by immigration reform advocates, a reaction that exhibited both ideological divides within the Democratic Party and a lingering resentment felt by many immigration advocates over the actions of the Obama administration, particularly in its first term.

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“Huge mistake. Huge. Huge mistake. Worst part? We have no other option. I guess we gotta pick our opponent. That’s what it has come down to,” wrote Erika Andiola, an immigrant rights activist and advocacy director for The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Muñoz, a policy expert who cut her teeth at UnidosUS, then known as the National Council of La Raza, before joining the Obama administration, became a lightning rod for criticism of Obama’s immigration policy.

“If Biden wins, no one from the Obama administration should be allowed to touch the immigration policy portfolio,” said Pablo Manríquez, a former Democratic National Committee spokesman who’s been overtly critical of Obama on immigration.

“Cecilia Muñoz is the one person besides [Trump White House aide] Stephen MillerStephen MillerSpecial counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report Trump confirms another White House staffer tested positive for COVID-19 Biden pick creates furor, underscoring bitterness over Obama immigration policy MORE who has spent years of her public service dedicated to the smooth execution of mass deportation policy at the West Wing level,” said Manríquez.

The criticism reflects in part the view that Muñoz did not advocate enough for immigration rights during internal discussions in the Obama White House. Instead, advocates say she too often defended policies that led to the deportation of more than 2 million people.

“She was the person in the White House who shielded Obama from all the flak,” said Amy Maldonado, an immigration lawyer whose clients include minors in detention.

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“The whole reason she was in that room was to give a perspective they weren’t hearing, and instead she covered for them,” added Maldonado.

The criticism comes as Biden continues to underperform with Latino voters, a fact that is alarming to many Democrats.

An NBC News-Marist poll released Tuesday found Biden trailing Trump among Latino voters in Florida, 50 percent to 46 percent. In 2016, by contrast, Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE beat Trump among Florida Latinos by 25 points, according to exit polls.

Biden has slowly but surely distanced himself from Obama’s more aggressive immigration policies, and Maldonado said there was no question for her about backing Biden over Trump, even if Biden brought back all of the Obama-era policies.

“Between Trump and Biden there is no choice. Children literally die in detention under this administration,” she said.

Other voices defended the Obama administration, saying it changed in the second term.

“Immigration policy under the Obama-Biden administration was not a singular thing, it evolved over time for a lot of reasons,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“While there were some bumps in the road, they showed some growth,” said Jawetz.

Muñoz has both White House experience and immigration expertise, which makes her a natural fit for Biden’s team. In 2000, she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her work on immigration policy.

A former Capitol Hill staffer with deep knowledge of immigration deliberations during the Obama administration lauded Muñoz, saying “she was advocating for immigration reform and the president leaning in to immigration in a positive way.”

Muñoz remained publicly loyal to Obama when the then-president was referred to by some as the deporter in chief, something perceived by some in the immigration space as a betrayal.

“There were lots of moments when people thought she should resign in protest and she didn’t. She stuck with it and it earned her a lot of enemies on the pro-immigrant left,” said the former staffer.

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But immigration advocates see Muñoz as a policy expert who will likely depend on the political leadership of Biden and his core team to mark a direction on immigration for the Democratic nominee.

“Cecilia Muñoz is one of several experienced advisors leading teams focused on establishing strong infrastructure for federal agencies dealing with domestic and economic policy. The transition team’s focus is ensuring there is a strong policy apparatus across government that can support the Biden-Harris Administration’s policies on day one,” said a Biden transition official.

Along with Muñoz’s appointment, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamBiden pick creates furor, underscoring bitterness over Obama immigration policy Buttigieg, former officials added to Biden's transition team No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (D) was announced as one of four co-chairs for the transition team, a hierarchical step above Muñoz.

Lujan Grisham led the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the first two years of the Trump administration and was a vocal defender of immigrant rights and proponent of immigration reform.

Winning over Latino voters, in any event, is likely to come down to Biden himself.

Biden’s case that he’s different from Obama on immigration will be aided by his running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act What Kamala Harris' VP nomination means to us Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' MORE (D-Calif.), who has one of the most liberal records in the Senate on immigration.

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But immigration activists are on the lookout for signs that Obama-era policies could make a comeback.

“If I wasn’t concerned, I’d get out of the business of doing advocacy. But Cecilia has expertise in both the issue and the inner workings of government and I think it’s important to consider the fuller picture of how Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE has positioned himself on immigration during the campaign and on what Kamala Harris’s participation on the ticket means,” said Jawetz.

--This report was updated at 11:28 a.m.