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Immigration Law

Obama Immigration Adviser Faces Protests At AILA Speech: Law360

Allissa Wickham at Law360 writes: "Cecilia Munoz, a top immigration adviser to the president, was confronted with protesters challenging the Obama administration’s use of family detention while she addressed a large group of immigration lawyers Thursday at a convention center outside Washington, D.C.

Attorney Sheila Starkey holds a protest sign during Cecilia Munoz's speech Thursday in Washington. (Credit: Law360)

Addressing a ballroom full of immigration attorneys attending the American Immigration Lawyers Associationconference in National Harbor, Maryland, Munoz said the administration would fight in court to implement the executive actions now on hold, and appeared optimistic about the possibility of more changes.

“Immigration reform is still a question of when, as opposed to if, but it’s going to take political will, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, if I’m being honest about it,” said Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

About halfway through her speech, a group of protesters gathered in the front of the room holding signs opposing family detention — a policy under which mothers and children, often from Central America, are held in detention centers while their immigration cases are pending, sometimes for months.

The protesters remained silent until Munoz mentioned immigration enforcement and detention, when some attendees cried “Not children!” Chants of “end family detention” broke out near the end of her speech, echoing the #EndFamilyDetention tag on fliers on several tables.

“You’re jailing children!” said attorney Sheila Starkey, holding a sign with a picture of a young boy’s face and the word “shame” on it.

Munoz didn’t directly address the protesters, but she did acknowledge that the detention policies used by the Obama administration in response to the large numbers of Central Americans coming to the U.S. last year “are really controversial” and said the administration would continue to work with AILA and others.

“I recognize that I’m asking a hard thing,” Munoz said. “Nobody on the pro-immigrant side of the debate wants to be the one to say, here’s who you should remove from the country, and here’s how you should do it, or here’s who you should detain — here’s what a vigorous enforcement strategy that’s also humane should look like. But by ceding this territory your movement is handing it to some people in Congress who really don’t share your values. And they can sell their perspective to the American public pretty effectively.”

Family detention has become a heated topic in immigration recently, as the practice was increased after large numbers of migrants crossed the southern U.S. border last summer. The government had previously decided to eliminate family detention in 2009, except in exceptional circumstances, according to the American Bar Association.

Critics say the practice poses due process concerns and hinders childhood development. Family and child detention is the subject of lawsuits in California and D.C. federal court, and the issue received national publicity this spring when mothers being detained at the Karnes detention facility in Texas launched a hunger strike.

Before her speech, Munoz met with a group of lawyers who have represented immigrants held at detention centers, and later said during her keynote address that they gave her an “earful” about the policies and “didn’t pull their punches.”

In the lead-up to the conference, which is at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, several immigration attorneys expressed outrage that Munoz had been invited to deliver the keynote; attorney Bryan Johnson created a petition on asking the group to rescind her invitation.

The petition argued that Munoz is “directly responsible for causing children to suffer severe and prolonged physical and mental harm” at detention centers.

Starkey, who is primarily a business immigration attorney but also works with immigrants at the detention center in Dilley, Texas, said she had met with women who have valid asylum claims. The women are “desperate to get out” and their children are often heavily stressed, Starkey said.

“You can give a refrigerator with milk and cookies to their kids, and yet, I wonder why those kids are completely stressed out and all they can talk about is getting out of there,” Starkey said.

She added that she was furious that Munoz seemed to be “acting as if this is someone else doing this” and trying to pass blame to Republicans.

“This is the Obama administration. It’s their decision.” Starkey said. “They tell their employees whose release to oppose and who to keep in detention. That’s coming from them, not from the Republicans. They should take a principled stand. They’re acting like they have no choice in this, which is ridiculous.”

Crystal Williams, the executive director of AILA, told Law360 it was good to put the issue of family detention in front of Munoz. She said the protesters' signs were a good idea but the "heckling" was "unprofessional, and uncalled for."

AILA invites a government speaker to its conference every year, and this is the first time people have objected to the selected official, she said.

She said she wasn't sure why Munoz became a target but suggested that her advocacy background might have something to do with the outrage. Munoz once worked with the National Council of La Raza, the biggest Latino civil rights group in the country.

"I think it might be because she’s one of us," Williams said. "She came from the advocacy side of this, and when you go to work for the government, you toe the line.”

Asked about the protest, a White House official told Law360 in a statement that the Obama administration "regularly seeks out opportunities to engage with attorneys and other stakeholders, including immigrants themselves, about the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement policies."

"We continue to engage extensively in assessing the impact of the response to last year's unprecedented influx of Central American children and families at the Southwest border, and these conversations are always helpful," the official said. "Engagement with stakeholders plays an important role in informing the administration’s decision-making on these important and complex issues." " - Law360, June 18, 2015.