Immigration Lawyers Call on AILA to Rescind Keynote Invitation to White House’s Cecilia Muñoz

Today a group of immigration lawyers —all individual members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)— published an open letter to AILA’S executive director, formally asking that a keynote speaker invitation to the White House’s Director of Public Policy be rescinded. The letter, which appears below, says that AILA should not have Cecilia Muñoz as the organization’s keynote speaker because, according to the lawyers, Muñoz “is directly responsible for causing children to suffer severe and prolonged physical and mental harm in detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico; Leesport, Pennsylvania; Karnes City, Texas; and Dilley, Texas.” The letter then proceeds to share specific examples to support the lawyers’ claims. In the past, Muñoz has been one of the White House’s major voices on its immigration policy.

May 21, 2015

Crystal Williams,
Executive Director
AILA National Office
1331 G Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005

Dear Director Williams and AILA leadership:

I write this letter on behalf of the undersigned and for our law firm. I am also scheduled to speak as an expert on the panel titled UACs, Guardianships, and Other Minor Issues.Together, we represent hundreds of immigrant children who are being or have been intentionally harmed by Cecilia Muñoz’s decisions as Domestic Policy Advisor to President Obama and as Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

We hereby request that AILA rescind Cecilia Muñoz’s invitation to deliver the keynote address at our annual conference given that she is directly responsible for causing children to suffer severe and prolonged physical and mental harm in detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico; Leesport, Pennsylvania; Karnes City, Texas; and Dilley, Texas.

Additionally, Ms. Muñoz has fully backed President Obama’s multi-pronged policy to prevent Central American children from escaping death, severe bodily or mental harm, and rape. She is one of the principal architects of shocking, widespread, and ongoing human rights violations against vulnerable children fleeing Central America. As such, she should not be elevated or rewarded with the most prominent speech at AILA’s annual conference.

Ms. Muñoz’s actions and words, in part, directly caused the children described below to suffer unimaginable physical and mental harm.

  • A 1-year-old rushed to the hospital with pneumonia only to be sent back to detention immediately upon discharge.
  • A 7-year-old boy raped and detained for months afterwards in the same facility as his abuser. He was released upon his family paying a $10,000 bond set by an immigration judge.
  • A 4-year-old girl locked in an isolation jail cell with her mother for 9 consecutive days while suffering from untreated pneumonia and severe decay in all of her teeth.
  • A 3-year-old who coughed up blood for more than 3 days who was told to just drink lots of water until finally she was brought to the hospital for treatment.
  • A 2-year-old boy with a 107 fever whom, according to the emergency room doctor, was close to suffering cardiac arrest if he had arrived any later.
  • A 4-year-old girl placed in foster care for two months after her mother attempted suicide in the Dilley internment camp because ICE extinguished her hope: she faced the certainty that life would end, either with indefinite detention or deportation to death in Honduras.

Dozens and dozens of similar accounts reverberate among us. Children suffer immense pain because of detention, and even death because of deportation. The above accounts are not unknown to Ms. Muñoz. Several high profile news outlets have reported on the physical and mental harm children experience as a direct consequence of detention.

Family detention is not even the worst of Ms. Muñoz’s acts. Starting last summer, she and the White House were desperate to do anything to stop Central American children from escaping into the U.S. in such high numbers. President Obama went so far as to request Congress to gut the 2008 Trafficking and Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”) so that unaccompanied children from Central America could be detained pending deportation without even seeing an immigration judge.

In the midst of the crisis, Ms. Muñoz told PBS News Hour that “the vast majority of those kids end up going back. There may be some isolated cases where there is some basis for them to be able to stay, but the borders of the United States are not open, not even for children who come on their own, and the deportation process starts when they get here, and we expect that it will for the vast majority of these kids.”

Contrasted with the reality that the vast majority of recent child arrivals are eligible to remain in the United States lawfully as special immigrant juveniles or asylees, Ms. Muñoz lied to the public to justify the unthinkable: deporting children back to be killed, abducted, raped, or harmed.

Opposed by Democrats in Congress, the White House was unsuccessful in eliminating the law’s protections. The President and his advisors went to plan B: hire Mexico to apprehend and rapidly deport Central American children back home while en route to the safety of the United States.

The White House’s plan is ongoing and the primary cause of the drop in Central American apprehensions in 2015: Mexico deported 3,289 Central American children in January and February of 2015 alone, a 105 percent increase from 2014.

The White House’s plan to trap children in countries torn asunder by a war even reaches the conditions of financial aid designated to ameliorate the crisis. In the 2015 budget bill, any Central American recipient of aid to improve conditions such as safety, security, and education would be stripped of all aid if the respective nations fail to keep their own citizens from fleeing harm to the United States.

Admittedly, it is important to maintain communications with the White House. However, even leading Senate and House Democrats speaking out against family detention as early as October of 2014 were unable to secure significant changes in the policy.

Rather, the administration continues its aggressive and unlawful campaign to deter Central American children and their families from lawfully obtaining asylum or other relief in the United States.

Family detention surged forward in its no-release-no-matter-what form until litigation in the District Courts in Washington D.C. and Central California blunted its power in February and April of 2015, respectively. However, litigation is not a miracle cure. Public pressure, which has been difficult to gain steam up until recently, plays a large role in affecting policy decisions from the White House and others. Public pressure is not gained by affording a leader who has ignored all pleas to stop harming children with more agency than all of the 14,000 AILA attorneys present at the conference.

Given that Ms. Muñoz is responsible for such unconscionable human rights violations against children fleeing to save their lives, we respectfully request that her invitation as the keynote speaker be rescinded immediately.

Very Truly Yours,

Bryan S. Johnson, Esq.
Ala Amoachi, Esq.
On behalf of the following:
Matthew Kolken, Esq. Christine Popp, Esq.
Amy Maldonado, Esq. Daniel M. Kowalski, Esq.
Ivan Yacub, Esq. Matthew Udall, Esq.
Norma Sepulveda, Esq. Mac Nayeri, Esq.
Matthew Archambeault, Esq. Isabel Guzman, Esq.
David Bennion, Esq. Carol Anne Mauer Donohoe, Esq.
Robert Barron, Esq. Scarlett Leiva, Esq.
Danielle Rosche, Esq. Bridget Cambria, Esq.
Marty Rosenbluth, Esq.

The lawyers have also posted an online petition directly addressed to AILA about Muñoz’s invitation.

A few hours later, AILA responded:

Dear Mr. Johnson et al:

Thank you for your letter regarding the invitation of Cecilia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, to deliver the keynote address at the 2015 AILA Annual Conference. I understand and share your outrage over family detention and over the way that Central Americans seeking safe refuge are being treated by our government. As discussed below, AILA has been working vigorously to end family detention and seek fair treatment of asylum-seekers.

Different organizations use keynotes for different purposes. Some aim to inspire the attendees. Others try to set the tone for the conference. Still others use it as the jumping-off point for the remainder of the proceedings. AILA? AILA uses the keynote as one of several tools to promote government accountability.

If you look at AILA annual conferences over the years, you will see one recurrent theme in our keynote speakers: it’s virtually always a government official. Last year it was the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. Frequently it has been the Director of USCIS or the Director of ICE. Before the days of DHS, it was almost always the Commissioner of INS. Many of these speakers have not been friends, and have engaged in practices anathema to all that AILA stands for. In addition to the keynote, we turn over an entire track for an entire day to government open forums—panels of government officials from the different agencies involved in immigration.

All of this is for a reason. The AILA annual conference is the single largest gathering in the country of people who know immigration. Who know the law, and know what is happening in reality in the field. When a government official stands in front of AILA, he or she is standing before a group that can’t be fooled by pretty words or general sound bites and slogans.

Which gets us to the question of why Cecilia Munoz. I’m not going to quarrel with your characterization of her individual role, since what matters is not what she has done privately or publicly on these issues. What matters is that she holds senior office in the White House, and thus can stand in front of a room of immigration lawyers and speak for the White House. And the White House must be held accountable for what it has done. The best way to do that is to put a White House official in front of a couple thousand immigration lawyers and talk about what the Administration has done. The good and the bad. The popular and the unpopular. DACA and Executive Actions. Record deportations and family detention.

If the experts on immigration law, and on the truth of what is happening in the field, are not willing to raise this challenge, who else will?

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what our members have been doing, pro bono, to represent these families and unaccompanied children. I recognize names of committed volunteers among the individuals on whose behalf your letter is signed. Beyond that, we as an organization have pursued, and continue to very actively pursue, all available avenues to #EndFamilyDetention. Today’s press conference by Members of Congress in opposition to family detention came about after Congress has heard repeatedly about the cases AILA lawyers have won and through the constant efforts by AILA and other advocates. We’ve shared information with editorialists and reporters around the country, including the New York Times editorial board, to keep the family detention situation in front of them; several recent editorials and opinion pieces attest to those efforts. Similarly, we have spent countless hours in that frustrating coin of Washington—meetings and phone calls—to try to turn the government tide on these issues. We also have worked closely with coalition partners to get grass roots attention on these issues.

So, no, we will not be disinviting Ms. Munoz. We will have her come and speak to our conference. We will behave professionally, but we will also challenge her to account for the Administration’s actions. Our mission as an organization requires no less.


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