Progress on Immigration Reform Leaves Rep. Gutierrez Elated and Wary

BY Kwame Holman  March 21, 2013 at 3:30 PM EDT


Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., center at the podium, has long advocated for the comprehensive immigration reform. In November 2012, the representative stood with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and announced a declaration of nine principles for comprehensive immigration reform. Photo courtesy of Rep. Luis Gutierrez/Flickr.

This week, the Republican National Committee, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and Speaker of the House John Boehner all have endorsed bipartisan work in Congress toward comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

But Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., still worries.

“I’m not sleeping because I’m thinking about what [more] needs to be done,” said the 10-term Democratic congressman from Chicago. “There are other more nefarious forces out there.”

Gutierrez has made securing a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented residents living in the U.S. — most of them Hispanic — a personal mission. Now that he’s closer than ever to the goal, he’s not letting up on his image as a tireless, vocal firebrand widely considered the preeminent voice for immigration reform in Congress.

He’s led rallies against the deportation policies of President Barack Obama and challenged Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders who support immigration reform to push harder and faster for a comprehensive bill.

But Gutierrez now says the November election may have done for the cause what all his years of hectoring the political class could not.

“I said this before the election. Everybody said, what’s going to change, Luis? What’s going to change if we vote for Barack Obama? All these deportations, people getting arrested,” Gutierrez said in an interview with PBS NewsHour. “I remember saying, oh, I’m working for Obama. I’m gonna make sure he gets elected because the victory is going to be so huge he’s going to be indebted to Latinos.”

Latinos voted overwhelmingly for the president and other Democrats, and that changed the calculus of Republicans as well, Gutierrez said. “That vote was so huge and numerous that Republicans, who had always wanted to either take this [immigration reform] off the table or — many more — who were our allies, our partners” could now support comprehensive reform, he said.

Working closely with Republicans, as he did several years ago during the last run at comprehensive immigration reform, Gutierrez is part of a small group in Congress quietly fashioning a bill.It’s allowed the liberal former Chicago city council member to forge new bonds despite ideological differences.

“There are a lot of wonderful personal relationships that are being developed across the aisle between people who politically have nothing else in common, who come to this issue, this ‘public policy matter,’ [they] you would say, so that it would be drained of any emotion, right? – from a different perspective. I see it as a civil rights issue, as a human rights issue,” Gutierrez said.

As the economic, political, and practical advantages of immigration reform get voiced by both parties, he believes potential obstacles to passing a final bill continue to fall away. And he says he’s less worried than before about one such pitfall — the demand by some conservatives that undocumented residents not be allowed to become U.S. citizens but only legalized residents.”I start from the premise that never again will we allow America to let there be a permanent second-class anything. We had a civil war over that,” Gutierrez said. “We’re not going to revisit it now. We’re not gonna allow a permanent subclass of Americans.”

Predictions are that immigration bills in the House and Senate will be unveiled formally after next week’s Spring congressional recess. Legislation could arrive on the president’s desk before summer’s end.

But some advocates worry something they can’t see now, such as the grassroots “anti-amnesty” movement that scuttled public opinion support for a law six years ago, could arise again.

Gutierrez says it’s what keeps him from sleeping well.

“There are days when I say to myself, ‘wow, we have fought against forces in this nation who have just said no — vehemently — to anything that isn’t they-should-pack-up-and-leave,” he said. “I just can’t believe that they’re not organizing somewhere getting ready and I’m being lulled into a false sense of where we’re at.”

Desk Assistant Simone Pathe contributed to this report.