A Former Obama Official on the “Interlocking Set of Failures” at the Border

A Former Obama Official on the “Interlocking Set of Failures” at the Border

Originally Published in The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner - April 6, 2021

Cecilia Muñoz discusses the Biden Administration’s response to the recent surge of arrivals and how conversations about the border have changed during the past thirty years.

Asylumseeking migrants' families make a line to board a bus
“I would hope that if you or I had a twelve-year-old knocking on our doors in need of help that we would not simply slam the door in their faces,” Cecilia Muñoz says.Photograph by Go Nakamura / Reuters

Last month, a record high of nearly nineteen thousand unaccompanied children from Central America arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. The arrivals have overwhelmed government facilities, leaving many child migrants in Customs and Border Protection detention centers for longer than the seventy-two hours permitted by law. The surge of asylum seekers has served as a test for the Biden Administration’s immigration policy, which provides protections for unaccompanied minors but maintains some restrictions introduced under President Donald Trump. Some have decried the situation as a humanitarian crisis.

Cecilia Muñoz is a member of the Biden transition team who previously served as the director of the Obama Administration’s domestic-policy council. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Muñoz wrote about the “unrealistic expectations among immigration opponents and immigrant advocates alike” and made the case for “a process that is fair, orderly, and humane.” I recently spoke by phone with Muñoz, who spent several years at the National Council of La Raza, an immigration-advocacy organization, before working in the government. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the Biden Administration’s response to the recent surge of migrants, Barack Obama’s legacy in immigration policy, and how discussions of the border have changed during the past thirty years.

In your recent piece for The Atlantic, you wrote, “As a matter of law, America’s borders are not open. Not everyone who comes is legally entitled to stay.” What did you mean by this, and what do you think it should entail, in practical terms?

What I mean is that I think the expectations of the country are that we will make decisions about who enters and who doesn’t enter, and that is consistent with the law. With the whole policymaking exercise—from advocacy, to the people in government, to policymakers, to people anywhere in the country who have a perspective on these issues—our responsibility is to come up with a system that makes sense, that we can support, that reflects our values, and that is good for the country. We have failed to do that now for a few decades. The last time immigration was reformed was in the nineteen-nineties, and we are living with the results of that. We can do better.

Isn’t there another way of looking at it, which is to say that the immigration system hasn’t been reformed not because we don’t have the political will but because a lot of stakeholders actually think the current situation is a good deal for the country as a whole?

There’s no question that there are a lot of sectors that benefit from the fact that our immigration system is broken, but it is also true that no one is prepared to defend it, because it really is indefensible. We have an immigration system that has not been reformed since the Internet was a new thing, and so our system of laws, the policies under those laws, the various facilities that we use—all of that was designed for a situation that is very different from the one we have now. The dysfunction, which I think everyone in America recognizes, is the result of that.

Yeah.

I think that that political critique probably has some merit to it, but I also really worry about getting to a place where these issues are seen as depersonalized, dehumanizing the real people at the border.

Yeah. I think there are two different frames in which we can have the conversation about immigration. The frame favored by President Trump is a tough-versus-weak frame. Under that framework, Democrats will always lose. I believe that the correct framework is not about being tough or weak but about making smart, effective policy choices. I think Democrats can and should be the party of an immigration system that is orderly, that is fair, that treats people with humanity, but has limits and boundaries and rules that people are expected to follow. In other words, Democrats can be the party of fixing the immigration system. Republicans are clearly the party that resists fixing it, and that tries to benefit from the chaotic status quo. Democrats can and should be the party of solutions here. In the context of those solutions, we can also be much more humane.

If you were in Congress and you were tasked with writing an immigration bill, what are a few things that you think are the most important to get right on a broad level?

Well, in order to do it on a broad level, you really do have to do all of it.

Is that for political reasons or for practical reasons?

It’s for practical reasons. As I mentioned, the system is broken from top to bottom, and you can’t fix what’s happening at the border effectively unless you are also fixing the legal-immigration system. The good news here is that the policy solutions are not difficult, and they are largely not controversial. You create a mechanism for people who are long-term undocumented residents to get on the right side of the law. You update the legal-immigration system so that people aren’t waiting in terrible backlogs in order to reunite with their family members. You update asylum policy and the policies at the border to address the border that we have now, as opposed to the border situation that we had thirty years ago, which is what our laws are designed for. That is eminently achievable. The policy is not difficult. What’s difficult is the politics.

I assume you think a wall is not the answer, but I also know that you believe open borders are not, either. How do you think about the issue of the border specifically, and how is it different from thirty years ago?

All of the infrastructure that we have now related to the border—the laws, the regulations, the buildings that we use, the training of our personnel—all of that was built for the situation we had thirty years ago, which was when our biggest challenge was single adults coming from Mexico. That is no longer the challenge that we face. The border challenge that we face now is families coming with children, and children coming alone, overwhelmingly from Central America, in many cases—maybe even most cases—fleeing violence or some other desperate situation. That situation can be managed, but it requires a different infrastructure than what we have now.

I believe it is entirely possible for the government to do its job, which is to sort the folks who are fleeing for their lives, who are deserving of protection under our laws, from the folks who are economic migrants and who don’t have the ability to stay under our laws, and to do that with humanity and in a way that honors our values. That means having personnel who recognize what migrants have just gone through in order to get to the border. It means facilitating a much quicker set of asylum adjudications.

This is something which is absolutely achievable, so that the people who are making an asylum claim get an answer expeditiously. We should provide them with humane living conditions while they await that answer, and then those who are approved for asylum can get on with their lives, and those who are not can be removed and returned to their home countries in a compassionate way. I think that’s where the current Administration is heading, but it’s going to take some time to undo the damage wrought by the Trump Administration, and to build the mechanisms and the physical spaces that are necessary to do this.

You hear a lot from the Administration, and some people who study this issue, about the importance of improving the political situation in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras. Those are two countries, among many others in the region, that the United States has not always done right by. I’m curious whether that was something that was talked about in the Obama Administration.

It was acted on in the Obama Administration, and the person who led the effort in the Administration was Vice-President Biden. When the surge of Central American migrants happened in 2014, the Administration requested two billion [dollars] from Congress aimed at the three Northern Triangle countries [El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras]. Then Vice-President Biden spent eighteen months working his relationships in Congress to get them to appropriate those funds. They ultimately appropriated seven hundred and fifty million.

He led the charge in both working with the leadership in the Northern Triangle countries and in building in-country processing for refugees in the region, meaning that if you were in fact in danger and needed to get to safety, you could do it without having to cross all of Mexico. That was the beginning of a long-term strategy to address the reasons that people migrate in the first place, and to provide a migration route that is different than crossing Mexico to get to the United States, and, very important, to engage other countries in accepting those refugees from the Northern Triangle countries, starting with Costa Rica, which, by the time the Obama Administration concluded, had begun to accept migrants.

The Trump Administration undid all of that. We have now lost four years of momentum, and President Biden has asked his Vice-President to resume that effort. By all accounts, even for the short time that that effort was in place in the Obama years, we were beginning to see progress, particularly in Honduras. At the end of the day, we cannot solve a refugee crisis in our hemisphere at the U.S.-Mexico border.

I know it wasn’t the nineteen-eighties, but there was what seemed like tacit support or not totally stern disapproval of a coup in Honduras at the beginning of Obama’s term.

Well, it’s time for us to recognize that we are part of a hemisphere whose problems are our problems, and they find their way to our borders. I think we are living with that right now. I think the Administration is wise to be engaging immediately and directly in the part of the hemisphere that is experiencing sufficient pain that people were sending their children with smugglers.

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