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Obama immigration aide seeks to finish quest

Sees chance for system overhaul

Cecilia Munoz worked as an immigration rights activist.

Cecilia Munoz worked as an immigration rights activist.

WASHINGTON — Cecilia Munoz, President Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, keeps a framed letter from the late senator and immigration advocate Edward M. Kennedy in her West Wing office.

‘‘We didn’t complete the journey, but we’ll get there,’’ Kennedy wrote in 2007 after the collapse of bipartisan efforts to overhaul the nation’s fractured immigration system.

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For Munoz, 50, a veteran of that fight and many earlier ones, completing the journey has never felt more possible. As head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, it is Munoz leading Obama’s effort to break through years of partisan gridlock and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living illegally in the United States.

‘‘There is a definite lift in her step,’’ said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser. ‘‘But she’s not taking anything for granted.’’

Sharp shifts in the political landscape have put an immigration overhaul tantalizingly close for Munoz and the president. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate in the November election, and Obama won two-thirds of their votes, in part because of the conservative immigration positions staked out by Republicans during their nominating contest.

The general election forced some GOP lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to comprehensive immigration changes, clearing the way for the swift consensus that has emerged between the White House and bipartisan lawmakers in recent weeks.

The areas of agreement include a road to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, strengthening border security, making the legal immigration system more effective, and cracking down on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

But filling in the details is expected to be contentious and emotional, with plenty of roadblocks.

USA Today reported Saturday that the White House is circulating a plan to create a visa for illegal immigrants. The proposal would allow them to become legal permanent residents within eight years.

Many conservatives oppose a citizenship path for illegal immigrations, calling it ‘‘amnesty.’’

Few people know the obstacles ahead in the immigration debate better than Munoz, who spent two decades as an immigration rights activist at the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy organization.

She earned a reputation as a fierce advocate with a wealth of knowledge of immigration policy, testifying frequently on Capitol Hill and giving guidance to lawmakers including Kennedy.

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