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Hispanic Heritage

Cecilia Muñoz

Born 1962
Politician, Lobbyist and Civil rights activist

Whether fighting immigration legislation or testifying before Congress, Cecilia Muñoz has been an intense, prominent voice on behalf of Hispanic American rights. As vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a nonprofit organization established to improve opportunities for Hispanics, she oversees all legislative activities that cover issues of great importance to Hispanic Americans. Colleagues call her "a ferocious advocate."

Cecilia Muñoz was born in Detroit, Michigan, on July 27, 1962, the youngest of four children. Her parents had moved to the United States from La Paz, Bolivia, so that her father, an automotive engineer, could go to the University of Michigan. When she was three, the family moved to Livonia, a growing, middle-class, white Detroit suburb. Muñoz attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and completed her undergraduate degrees in English and Latin studies in 1984. Her time at the university reminded her of her youth in Livonia, where Hispanics were in the minority. But, as a side job, she worked as a tutor to Hispanic American inmates at the state prison in nearby Jackson, an experience that helped her get closer to her Hispanic culture. Following graduation, Muñoz continued her education at the University of California at Berkeley, where she obtained her master's degree.

Muñoz moved from California to Chicago to work for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago as head of the Legalization Outreach Program for Catholic Charities. Following the 1986 enactment by President Ronald Reagan of the Immigration Reform and Control Act—an amnesty program that allowed undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria (such as having lived continuously in the United States) to become legal U.S. residents—Muñoz helped more than five thousand immigrants obtain legal citizenship in the United States. Working double-digit hours, she operated 12 field offices throughout metropolitan Chicago, an intense experience. The racism and sexism she confronted in her job gave her greater empathy in working with immigrants.

National Council of La Raza

In 1988, Muñoz began her work at NCLR as the senior immigration policy analyst. She had developed a real interest in working for an institution that focused on Hispanic Americans, and she picked a prominent one. Formed in 1968, the National Council of La Raza bills itself as "the largest constituency-based national Hispanic organization, serving all Hispanic nationality groups in all regions of the country." Media outlets have viewed the NCLR's Policy Analysis Center as the pre-eminent Hispanic think tank, a voice for all Hispanic Americans. It seeks to reduce poverty and discrimination and to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans by strengthening Hispanic community-based organizations through assistance in such areas as management and resource development; it also gives its perspective on a variety of public policy issues, to encourage the adoption of programs that will better serve Hispanics. Muñoz currently is in charge of all legislative actions handled by the policy staff.

Controversy Over Welfare Reform

On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the strictest federal welfare reform law in years. It had major implications for legal immigrants who were not citizens. They became ineligible for food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the latter of which assists aged, blind, and disabled individuals. The cost savings from these cutbacks was estimated to be between 20 and 30 billion dollars over six years.

Immigrant advocate groups and charitable organizations, such as the NCLR, Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights in San Francisco, and Second Harvest, felt that the law was too harsh and unfair. Immigrants who came to the United States legally yet, who were not citizens, would be cut off from immigrant public assistance programs. This was especially critical to refugees who come to the United States with little money and few possessions, and who typically need several years for an adequate transition to their new surroundings. Advocates claimed it was unfair to change the rules and cut off benefits to those who had come to the United States legally.

The NCLR demonstrated the suffering these cutbacks created. The organization put a human face on the misery by presenting individuals who spoke at a press conference of the direct personal impact of these cost-cutting measures. Speaking on behalf of the NCLR, Muñoz stated, "We have no other choice but to demonstrate the human cost of these policies. And the human cost is extraordinary." It was predicted that an estimated one million immigrants would be adversely affected by rescinding food stamps. "Many of these immigrants are working men and women who supplement their income with food stamps in order to provide food for their families," stated Muñoz in an article in The Orange County Register.

The public lobbying ultimately proved successful. In July of 1997, less than a year after Clinton originally signed the bill, lawmakers softened their legal mandates by allowing some legal immigrants to continue their SSI benefits. According to Muñoz, "The lesson of the last year seems to be you can only make policy change to undo terrible wrongs after people have died or after people have entered situations that are just excruciatingly painful to watch." Muñoz believes that the decision to withhold food stamps should also have been reversed. She has spoken out for its reinstatement: "It was unfair to deny SSI to immigrants and apply this change in the law retroactively. It's equally unfair to do the same with food stamps." Some attributed the tough immigration law to the fact that it was an election year. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies said, "The election year having passed and the special-interest groups concerned having mounted a very large and very effective lobbying campaign, Congress pulled back."

Fighting Against Discrimination

The height of irony—but an example of the kind of issue on which Muñoz works the hardest—occurred on March 21, 1997, when Muñoz was twice asked on the telephone about her citizenship, just prior to her attendance at a White House briefing on immigration. Although the White House claimed that, for security reasons, a new policy required visitors to give their date of birth, Social Security number, and citizenship, Muñoz seemed to be singled out. According to fellow attendees Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington nonprofit advocacy group, neither he nor Josh Bernstein, policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, were questioned. "There are laws against this stuff in the workplace," asserted Sharry in a Washington Post article. "This selective questioning of people is based on what, the number of vowels in their name?" An angry Muñoz said "[I had] smoke coming out of my ears. I hit the ceiling. This is exactly what we're fighting against."

The negative image of immigrants is something Muñoz battles every day. In 1997, a coalition of immigration reform groups set out to reduce legal immigration and eliminate illegal immigration. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) claimed that "large numbers of immigrants make all our problems worse." Arizonans for Immigration Reform said in a Arizona Republic article that immigrants represent "an invasion that will destroy our country's sovereignty if something is not done about it." Muñoz countered these claims in the same article by pointing out the United States has largely "benefited from its generous tradition of welcoming immigrants." Indeed, an earlier report by the National Research Council concluded "immigrants are a net boost to the U.S. economy, adding up to ten billion dollars each year." Muñoz theorizes that anti-immigrant groups "try to find out what people in a certain area are concerned about and then try to link those concerns to immigration." In California, she said, the depressed economy was often blamed on immigrants; in Arizona, fast growth was their fault. Muñoz feels these criticisms stem from people worrying "about Latinos being culturally different."

Acts as Tough Advocate

Muñoz greets her visitors graciously. Fellow workers describe her as modest. In addition, she speaks warmly of her family—husband Amit Muñoz-Pandya, a human rights lawyer, and daughters Cristina and Meera. But she fights hard "doing the work I always wanted to do." As colleague Sharry says, Muñoz is as "tough and determined an advocate as you can find. She doesn't back down an inch."

FURTHER READING

Periodicals
"Congress Weakens Immigration Policies." Associated Press. December 1, 1997.

Eversley, Melanie. "A Leading Authority: Detroit Native Speaks Out Proudly for Latino Issues." Detroit Free Press. November 3, 1997.

Hayward, Brad. "Welfare Reform Has Legal Immigrants Wary." Sacramento Bee. September 4, 1996.

"Immigrants Add $10 Billion to Economy Annually, Study Says." Washington Times. May 19, 1997. Available at http://web.lexis-nexis.com.

McDonnell, Patrick J. "Proposed Cutbacks in Aid Alarm Legal Immigrants." Los Angeles Times. July 30, 1996, p. A1.

Navarrette, Ruben, Jr. "Groups Ask for Cuts in Immigrants." Arizona Republic. November 11, 1997. From http://www.azcentral.com/hispanic.

Sample, Herbert A. "Activists Want Food Stamps Restored to Immigrants." Orange County Register. August 22, 1997, p. A15.

Sun, Lena H. "White House Queries Activist on Citizenship." Washington Post. March 21, 1997, p. A28.

Source: Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale, 1999; Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2000.

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