Above: Alumna Cecilia Muñoz (A.B. 1984), second from left, looks on from the collonade with her colleagues as President Barack Obama announced DACA on June 15, 2012. Official White House photo by Pete Souza
You were the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council in the Obama administration. Can you explain your role in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA?
Cecilia Muñoz: I was the White House lead for DACA; this means that I led the White House team of domestic policy staff and lawyers from the White House Counsel’s office, who worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in developing the policy. Once we had worked through the legal issues, we also worked closely with the Office of Management and Budget to make sure that we all felt that DHS would be ready to implement the program successfully. The White House Counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, and I sent the decision memo to the President in June of 2012, and we rolled out the decision on the 15th. We did all of this in a matter of weeks, and DHS began accepting applications two months after DACA was announced. That’s lightning speed for the federal government.
Because DACA was put in place by executive action and not enacted by Congress, you knew it was vulnerable. Can you explain why the Obama administration decided to take this approach?
CM: President Obama resisted taking this approach for a long time; he made it clear even on the day that he announced DACA that he vastly preferred legislation, which is the only way to provide permanent status to the young people who were helped by DACA.
It’s important to understand that DACA isn’t a benefit program; it’s a use of enforcement authority. It was important to be clear with the people affected that they were essentially reporting themselves to DHS because they’re deportable, and DHS was agreeing to defer action on their deportations. President Obama and Secretary Napolitano were very clear that this was only a temporary action; we all worked incredibly hard to get an immigration bill through Congress. We got a strong bipartisan bill through the Senate in 2013, and knew we had the votes for something similar in the House, but in the end, Speaker Boehner never allowed anything to the House floor for a vote.
You have been a defender of border and immigration enforcement, which has, at times, made you a controversial figure in the immigrant community, despite having spent your career on immigration and civil rights for which you received a MacArthur Fellowship. Can you say a bit about that experience?
CM: When you work in government, you have to enforce laws, even unpopular, broken ones. The Obama Administration is the first to actually spell out a set of priorities for immigration enforcement and to act upon them—this is what led to DACA. I’m incredibly proud of that. I knew I would be in for criticism the moment I accepted the President’s call to serve. I don’t regret it for a minute.
What has it been like to see DACA rescinded?
CM: Incredibly painful, especially because the pain and uncertainty is so great for the DACA recipients themselves. The worst part is that doing away with DACA is totally unnecessary, and helps absolutely nobody in this country, while the harm to individuals, to families, to the economy, and to the country is enormous.
Ending DACA obviously has repercussions for Dreamers, but it also has policy repercussions. Can you say a little bit about this?
CM: DACA is a use of enforcement discretion by DHS on a grand scale. The Administration’s action now calls into question all kinds of other uses of discretion—these are the tools that allow individual enforcement agents to recognize the humanitarian or other circumstances that should allow for some leniency. These tools are important, not just for humanitarian reasons, but so that the agency can focus its resources on the right law enforcement priorities.
Now that the Trump administration has decided to let DACA sunset, what are the next steps for us, as a nation, and for public institutions, such as the University of Michigan?
CM: I am a proud third generation Wolverine, and even prouder that one of my daughters is also an alum—four generations in my family. It’s important for all of us, including the university we love, to stand with the DACA recipients and assure them that we will work to keep them safe, and we will lift up their many contributions to this country. And we have a legislative opportunity between now and the end of the year to get the DREAM Act passed and settle this question once and for all. We should all be all in on that.