Last week I stood outside the Phoenix Convention Center where Cecilia Muñoz, President Obama's top Latina aide and spokesperson on immigration, was scheduled to speak about "immigrant integration." I wanted her to tell me why hundreds of thousands of Latinos like me are what she and the Obama Administration call "criminals." Instead of standing by and doing nothing, my colleagues and I thought it would be more fruitful to take action and show up in person at Ms. Muñoz's planned speech.
We knew she would be speaking at a conference of the National League of Cities in Phoenix, AZ. It seemed inconceivable to me that Ms. Muñoz would talk to mayors, commissioners, and other local officials about "immigrant integration," while at the same time acting as the main spokesperson for S-COMM, the devastating collaboration between police and the federal Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). S-COMM destroys any desire for us to be part of any "integration" because it equates non-criminals such as people who are caught driving without a license or women who call the police to report domestic violence, with those who've perpetrated "serious crimes." So, I wanted to somehow ask her a simple question: "Why do you call me a criminal?
Joining me was a group of undocumented immigrants and allies from the Puente Movement in Phoenix. We all wished to speak to the person we previously looked up to as an immigrant advocate. Together, we rallied outside the convention center to call her attention to our growing concerns. I also carried a letter to Ms. Muñoz from Presente.org asking her to set the record straight about who her boss, President Obama, is deporting. In the two days before I arrived, the letter received endorsements from more than 37 organizations, evidence that she and President Obama are growing less popular with Latinos, as the polls indicate.
I arrived with a lot of support, but the most powerful part of our rally was the story of my friend Hector. He came from Mexico when he was only 5 years old. The former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) lost his documents and for that reason he was not given legal status. Sadly, he was picked up in June of 2011 during a routine traffic stop in Tucson while returning from his family business. He was then placed in a detention center for 5 months. He was recently released and was ready to tell Ms. Muñoz about the horrors of detention. Is he a criminal? I don't think so! But this is precisely the kind of story I wanted Ms. Muñoz to respond to. Many of us will not rest until she gives us an answer.
Ms. Muñoz's previous role as an immigrant rights advocate was filled with passionate words and phrases, like when she criticized Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Now, I can't help but wonder why she has completely changed her position as a defender of President Obama's terrible immigration policies like S-COMM. The program has caused incalculable pain. But, according to Ms. Muñoz and the Obama administration, S-COMM will be expanded beyond Arizona and into every county across the nation by 2013.
Increasing numbers of Latinos want to know, and deserve to know, why she has become the main spokesperson for S-COMM, a program that will create thousands of different Sheriff Joe Arpaios across the country.
It might seem simplistic or naïve of me to ask Ms. Muñoz, a powerful White House aide with access to the most powerful man on earth, for an audience. But, believe it or not, that's what I wanted to achieve in Phoenix. Why not? At different times, in different places, she has spoken to the media about people just like me and has called us "criminals." Yet she doesn't want to tell me in-person and repeat what she says all over the media.
I traveled thousands of miles to find out that she and the Obama Administration would not even receive the letter we had brought to deliver to her. Instead, the only people that received us were security guards who threatened to call the police to arrest us if we didn't leave. If you live in Phoenix, the "police" is Sheriff Joe Arpaio. A fellow protestor whispered to me, "Let's go. We don't have a plan if they arrest you," by which he meant that I could be deported by the same Obama Administration policies Ms. Muñoz defends. The same policies she says deport "criminals."
At that moment, it became even clearer to me how dangerous the absence of truth is. That's why I have decided to call Ms. Munoz to a public debate in a Latino community of her choosing. I hope this time we can talk, so we can set the record straight once and for all about who is and isn't a "criminal." I hope to hear from her soon.
Follow Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/f_matos007