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White House Adviser Cecilia Munoz Answers Immigration Questions


Let's pose some more questions about President Obama's executive action on immigration. He is acting without Congress to let millions of undocumented people stay in the U.S. legally - people such as parents of U.S. citizens. It's a temporary authority. Cecilia Munoz is a senior adviser to the president, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and she's on the line. Welcome back to the program.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Now, you know the president's authority to change immigration policy in this way has been questioned. And I need to note that it's been questioned in the past by the president himself. We had a quote from the president on the program yesterday I just want to read to you. He said, if in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we are also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition. That is the president speaking last year. And he said this several times in several ways. Was he wrong?

MUNOZ: He wasn't wrong. He was responding to people's request that he do everything that the Senate did or that he completely stop deporting people altogether. Both of those things are beyond his authority. He was telling the truth. He wishes he could go as far as the Senate went, but that's the prerogative of Congress. He made it very clear in his remarks last night that what he was taking is an important step well within his authority under the law but that there's a lot of unfinished business here, and Congress really needs to step up and do its part of the job here.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just note that he also said in a past interview on Telemundo that - and I'm paraphrasing here - he said I can tweak the law for DREAM Act kids - young people who were brought here as children. But he said in that interview, I can't go farther than that. Now he's gone farther than that.

MUNOZ: And he went on in that same interview to talk about - to encourage the folks that he was speaking with to be pushing the Congress to act. He waited a long time - 16 months after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill - for the House to take up legislation. He was making the case that we live in a democracy, and we all need to make sure that all the branches of the government do their job here. So what he's done is well within his authority. But he also recognizes it's only a step. There's a lot of unfinished business that remains.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the unfinished business that remains. Isn't this going to create a confusing situation because you are granting temporary legal status to millions of people, but also denying temporary legal status to millions of people? Even some Republicans - Lindsey Graham, who we've heard elsewhere on the program, is pointing out there's still millions of people left out of this.

MUNOZ: Well, and I would hope that he would be the first to say that Congress should stand up and do its job here. There are people who were left out of this. There's all kinds of unfinished business still on the table. The immigration system is nowhere close to being fixed, even with these actions that the president took last night. So I think we would tend to agree that there's work to be done here.

INSKEEP: Although, I don't quite understand why you drew the line where you did. Parents of U.S. citizens - in. People who don't have kids are out. Isn't that just a political calculation? One group seem politically sympathetic - the other less so.

MUNOZ: It's actually a calculation based on the law. And we have a decision from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel which basically says that because Congress spoke to the question of U.S. citizens being able to get visas for their parents, that it's reasonable to provide relief to the parents of people who are U.S. citizens. At some point, because of Congress's decision, these folks will be able to be immigrants. That's not true of folks who are on the other side of the line that the president drew last night. It's a legal distinction that we've defined what are really the limits of the president's authority. And again, the president was really clear. This is a step. He doesn't think we're done. I don't think anybody in the country would think that we're done fixing our broken immigration system.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the next steps. And we are talking, I'll remind you, with Cecilia Munoz, a presidential adviser on immigration and other key policies. One possibility, I suppose, is that the president ultimately gets a bill from Congress he can sign. But there are other possibilities. Here is one of them - nothing happens. Congress passes nothing. Couple years pass, this president goes out of office, his executive authority expires or is changed. What's plan B? What is supposed to happen then?

MUNOZ: Well, I mean, that's going to be the in the hands of a future administration. At the end of the day, we think this is a policy which will stand very well in the sense that, you know, there were going to be a lot of people who are affected, a lot of important changes to the system under which people in science and technology fields are able to stay and work in the United States, a new program for entrepreneurs to come and help create jobs in this country. All of that is taking place as a result of the president's actions. And as the president has said many times, immigration reform is not a question of if. It's a question of when. The sooner we get this job done at a congressional level, the better. But in the meantime, he's got to do his part.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, one other possibility here was mentioned by Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana congressman quoted by our colleague Tamara Keith. He said, I think we should pass our own immigration bills - conservative immigration policy. Suppose Congress, when both houses are controlled by Republicans, does get its act together and does pass an immigration bill - doesn't include a path to citizenship. The president doesn't like it, but it's passed a bill. Is the president going to sign that?

MUNOZ: Well, we'll what Congress can come up with. What we know is that what passed the Senate was a strong bipartisan bill. It had a very strong bipartisan vote. We know that immigration reforms really throughout history have required bipartisan cooperation. And so it is our hope that a good bipartisan process will produce good legislation that the president can sign. We came very close to that in the last year, but not close enough. We have to keep at it.

INSKEEP: Cecilia Munoz, thank you very much.

MUNOZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She is director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and one of the architects of the president's executive action on immigration. Our White House correspondent Scott Horsley has been listening in with us, and he's on the line next. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what struck you in what you just heard?

HORSLEY: Well, as you pointed out, Steve, there are going to be some people who are unhappy with this because it doesn't go far enough. There are going to be those on the right who are concerned because the president's going too far. But there's also a lot people sort of in the middle who are generally supportive of the aims of the immigration bill that passed the Senate - generally supportive of what the president wants to achieve with these actions - but are concerned about the way he's going about it. And part of what the president was doing last night - and he's going to do again today in Las Vegas - is to kind of re-frame that debate, I think.

There's a lot of people. The American voters have certainly said they don't like gridlock. And the president's trying to sort of put that back on congressional Republicans. You know, since the election, he's been accused of poisoning the well. He's trying to say, look, the Republican Congress - the Republican-controlled House - kept a concrete lid on the well for the last year and a half and kept that bottled up.

INSKEEP: Well, let's say that they pry the concrete lid off of the well once Republicans control both houses of Congress. It does become at least plausible then - although the Senate is still difficult - it's at least plausible that Republicans could agree on some form of immigration legislation that doesn't include the parts that they dislike. Is the White House ready for the president to have a bill sent his way like that?

HORSLEY: Well, it's going to be interesting because part of the whole idea of the comprehensive bill that the Senate did was to get the parts that everybody likes some and everybody hates some. And you put them all together so you have some leverage there. And that's been the White House strategy. The president, with this new Republican Senate that's going to come in, is not going to have the Democratic Senate as a buffer. And he may have to exercise his veto pen a little bit more than he has in the past.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks as always.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.