Meet The ‘Outsider’ Who Could Shape House Immigration Reform


WASHINGTON, D.C.– After 20 years in Congress, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) has risen in rank as an authoritative and respected voice, but that hasn’t always been natural for him. For nearly all of his life, he has been an outsider looking in. In his new book Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, Gutierrez writes, “I’m too Puerto Rican for America and too American for Puerto Rico.” Born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents, he was too dark-skinned to hang out with the white kids and too light-skinned to befriend the black kids. After his father moved the family back to Puerto Rico during his formative teenage years, Gutierrez’s broken Spanish made him a “gringo,” and an easy target for his classmates.

Gutierrez is at ease staking his own ground on immigration reform, which has positioned him well to be a key player as the House grapples to reach some sort of consensus on reform. He has twice been arrested for protesting the deportations of undocumented parents and youths by the Obama administration. But on Monday, he severed ties with two immigrant activist organizations led by undocumented youths. He is one of more than 180 House Democrats who support a House comprehensive immigration bill, but when some wanted to put together a more “liberal” immigration bill, he determined that such a bill would alienate House Republicans.

And according to his book, Gutierrez twice defended then-Senator Barack Obama (D) to the Latino community even as he campaigned for stronger border security provisions. But when Obama did not take up reform during his first term, Gutierrez warned that he would withhold support for the 2012 election and soon escalated tensions by calling on Obama to grant deferred action to undocumented youths in 2011– for the next year and a half, Obama insisted that he could not bypass Congress. Then June 15, 2012 happened. Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Gutierrez states in his book that the Obama administration had not given him advance notice. Gutierrez forgave and campaigned for the President in 2012, saying, “I was glad to do it. After all, we’d started out as friends. All it took was four years of fighting, two arrests, boxes of petitions, and two national tours, and he took historic action to protect immigrants. Maybe we could get along again after all.”

During an interview with ThinkProgress on Wednesday, Gutierrez reaffirmed his outsider status. While he would prefer comprehensive reform, like the approved Senate immigration bill, he is also willing to support a piecemeal approach preferred by many House Republicans, so long as it includes a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrants and an end to deportations that “needlessly separate” families:

I think the fact that [three] Republicans have joined the Democrats’ sponsored bill in the House is an indication that there are those who think it’s politically expedient for them to sign on, but moreover, they want to lead their party to a place where they want to lead their party away from this permanent, minority status as a party of regions and provinces. In America, they want it to be a national party.

Gutierrez is optimistic, as he has been his whole life, about small victories– especially if House Republicans are genuine about acting on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. He qualified that reform cannot just stop at the passage of legalization for some immigrants– a serious consideration by some House Republicans– like legalization for undocumented youths under the DREAM Act:

My point is, look, that will be a step in the right direction…If we can do a DREAM Act right, finally, there’s a point at which Republicans and Democrats can work on something positive. It’s not like we’re saying we’ll do the DREAM Act and stop, it’s let’s do the DREAM Act and continue.

The Republicans have said that they want to set it piecemeal and I get it. McCain and Schumer said they’re okay with it. I’m okay with it. Look, the most important thing is if you say to me that all I’m going to have is coffee for breakfast and that’s all I get for the whole day, I’m going to say that’s just harsh, I can’t survive on that alone. I need a full meal. But if you said, drink that coffee and then we can talk about your eggs and your toast, I haven’t stopped the conversation. In the end, I’m going to continue to say that I’m unsatisfied and I’m hungry until you give me a full menu.

Given the sharp divide between some House Republicans who fully reject legalization and others who support legalization for some immigrants, Gutierrez is realistic about passing piecemeal measures before taking on larger issues:

Remember one thing. [The DREAM Act affects] two million of 11 million people. It’ll be two million people that I basically set aside and say, ‘you are now in a safe, permanent place.’ Plus, you have set the possibility of moving forward. You know, before we run, sometimes we need to learn to walk. And I know that we want to race to the finish line, but Democrats are not in charge of the House of Representatives– we’re the minority.

And Gutierrez is generous about doling out credit to Republicans for their willingness to compromise on immigration. He praised Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for having gone from being a Tea Party darling to helping to draft immigration reform:

I’m thankful to him because he was part of the Group of Eight. And I think he was very critical of the Group of Eight because he was the most conservative– he came the furthest away…Rubio came from the Tea Party. Rubio came from a position in which he stated, ‘it’s all amnesty, there will never be amnesty.’ So he was important to the group, so I’ll always be thankful to him because he came the furthest to join us.

What can he do now? Help. Work with the Republicans, especially with Tea Party Republicans that he has such an affinity to in the House of Representatives and finish this… In the end, the true understanding of his contribution is only going to come when the House votes on comprehensive immigration reform, which I believe he will play a critical role.

Even so, Gutierrez believes that external forces like the American public could likely pressure House Republicans to focus on a long-term solution, rather than a temporary patch like Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) plan, which would legalize immigrants for six years:

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal— their editorials are the same, yet they come from a liberal and a conservative bent. AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce, they never agree on anything, they spend tens of millions of dollars fighting each other, but they’re together on immigration… there were 600 leaders of faith, these are men who can’t agree to worship together on Sunday, but they can agree to collaborate here on a Tuesday afternoon on comprehensive immigration reform. Every poll tells us that America is ready for comprehensive immigration reform. Why do we want to offer less than what is fair and reasonable and from a purely political standpoint, what the American people are ready to accept?