The longest-serving member of the Illinois House delegation weighs in on the state of affairs in DC and on his candid memoir, Stilll Dreaming.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez
Tavis: Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez is the son of Puerto Rican parents. He grew up in that country and then came back to the States as a high school student.
He’s now written a memoir about his experiences titled “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.” But he joins us tonight from New York City. Congressman, good to have you on this program, sir.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with a couple of quick questions about the news of the day, and then we’ll move on to your wonderful memoir.
Tavis: But as a Democrat, what do you make of this – I was going to say showdown, but it’s not really a showdown, it is a shutdown. (Laughter) But what do you make of what’s happening just a few miles from where you are down the road in D.C.?
Gutiérrez: Look, I went to Congress to expand healthcare opportunities. We’re members of Congress. We get the same healthcare that every other federal employee gets. You know something? It’s pretty good. It’s taken good care of my wife, of my children, of me, over the last 21 years in Congress.
All I want is to make sure everybody has access to what the elected officials in the Congress of the United States do. I want to expand healthcare, and I’m not going to allow them to use the budget to stop people in my neighborhoods and across the country to have exactly what they all have as members of Congress.
Tavis: How much longer do you think this thing can go? It appears over the weekend that John Boehner has dug his heels in even more adamantly. So what’s your sense of how much longer this is going to go on? How much worse is it going to get?
Gutiérrez: I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’m not an optimist in regards to this fight. It is some of the most bitter, mean, just ugliness in the Congress of the United States, and you know, Tavis, I know you’ve heard this before, but if you see us in the gym, right, when we’re getting ready to go to work in the morning, if you’d see us at lunch together, it’s night and day.
So many people want to set this behind us. Let’s just hope the leadership can take us there. Because look, nobody’s leaving the pack at any – the Democratic Party, the Republican Party. Everybody’s in for a battle, and I think I’m in for a battle that I’ve won, and I have a right.
I think as Democrats – okay, one Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act – one. And we didn’t take him out, Tavis. They took him out. They never wanted to expand healthcare for Americans. I think we have to stand up.
This fight is about making sure that government’s there on your side, and I think it’s important that we keep this fight.
Tavis: Isn’t this the party that always talks about respect for the rule of law? Whether you like or dislike, whether you like or loathe this Obama healthcare, it is the law of the land. The Supreme Court has upheld it. So whatever happened to this notion of at least respecting the rule of law in America?
Gutiérrez: Tavis, they have a new philosophy, and that is that is that a small group of people can impose their ideological bent on what happens in the Congress of the United States.
Here’s how I see it. The House and the Senate passed it, it went to the Supreme Court, they said it’s constitutional. They thought they were going to win. They lost there.
November 6th, there was a referendum. Barack Obama got five million more votes than Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney said he’d get rid of Obamacare. The people obviously knew what they were doing.
People in America are smart. The one who gets the most votes is the winner. That’s democracy. I wish they, right now, Tavis, if they would allow a vote on a clean CR, continuing resolution, to fund our government for the next six weeks while we figure out the budget, a clean CR, let me tell you what happens: More than 218 people vote for it.
They stop democracy from flourishing by now allowing the 435 members to vote their will.
Tavis: Let me segue to your book, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill,” because I think the timing of this book, the release of your memoir, is propitious, specifically because one of the things that troubles me about members of Congress writ large is that these members of Congress, as you well know, are wealthier than the average American.
Tavis: So that there’s so many experiences that members of Congress don’t have that ends up impacting how they vote or don’t vote. If you’ve never been poor, then you don’t understand how this shutdown is impacting poor people.
Say a word to me about how the back story that is your life impacts the decisions you make every day where poor people and other disenfranchised citizens are concerned.
Gutiérrez: Two things. My mom and dad came to this city, New York City, 60 years ago. They came to the city of New York, and you know what they found? They didn’t have a coat, they didn’t understand the language, it was a hostile environment.
If you opened up the papers when they got here, they said, “Oh, Puerto Ricans, they’re coming from that island bringing disease. They’re coming from that island bringing crime to the city of New York. They’re coming here to get on welfare.” All of these negative things.
That’s never what I saw. I saw Mom, my dad drove a cab, my mom worked in a factory. They were my first role models. I saw them struggle. I grew up in the city of Chicago. I was born there in 1953.
My parents got married here in New York, moved to Chicago. I was born there. I may have lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but I lived in a segregated city, where Blacks lived in one part, Latinos lived in another, and whites lived in another.
Yeah, there weren’t any signs that said, “Blacks and Puerto Ricans need not go to this swimming pool,” but we knew better. We knew better not to go to those beaches.
That’s the experience I had, an experience in which society was hostile to me. But secondly, you know why you and I are having this conversation today? I went into that lull after college, right? I was happy, Tavis.
I married Soraida, my wife of 35 years. We had Omaira, our first daughter, we bought out first home. We watched “This Old House,” right, and saw how they sanded the floors, caulked the windows, refurbished. (Laughter)
Then in Chicago in 1983 a Black man had the audacity to run and actually win the Democratic primary – Harold Washington.
So what brings me to where I’m at today? I was nice and ensconced in my six-pack of beer and game of dominoes on weekends with my friends, right, and going to baptism, and all that’s good.
But when I saw that Dan Rostenkowski, when I saw the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, member of the Democratic Caucus, and all of the white Democrats in the city of Chicago say, “No, not if it’s Harold Washington, not if it’s a Black man. We’re going to with Epton before it’s too late,” you know what? I’m kind of happy it happened.
Because we’re having this conversation, because that transformed my life. I couldn’t say hey, you know, it’s all right to protest and to talk about stuff and to say that bigotry and discrimination and racism are bad. I had to confront the reality that I needed to do something. It changed my life, and I’m happy for it.
Tavis: It changed your life working with Harold Washington. You went into public service. To your point now, 20-some-odd years later you’re still serving honorably in Congress.
Yet the persons like your parents who came here with nothing, who now depend and rely on you to be their voice in Congress, are not having their say. You and I have had this conversation on PBS and elsewhere a number of times, and I said to you, I’ve asked you repeatedly, tell me why you believe that in the Obama era something is going to get done on immigration reform.
Gutiérrez: Good question.
Tavis: We keep asking what’s it going to take to get something on gun control reform. No matter how many shootings there are, seven massacres on Obama’s watch, nothing has happened on gun control.
Here we are again today, and I’m telling you I’m still looking for what that opening is going to be to get people in Washington to take immigration reform seriously. You tell me.
Gutiérrez: I think they are taking it seriously. I have to say that we went, as I relate later in the book, we went to see the president in January of this year.
Gutiérrez: I was there with him, Tavis, and it was – let me see, Xavier Becerra was there, Bob Menendez. The three of us were working hard across the aisle, crafting legislation.
Bob Menendez got it across the finish line in the Senate. We’re still working on getting it in the House. We sat there and the president said, “What should we do,” and we said, “Don’t introduce a bill, Mr. President.
Talk about the importance, go to Las Vegas, campaign, highlight the importance. Don’t use your presidency as a bully pulpit, but as a spotlight on the need to have a transformation of our immigration system.
He turned around and looked at us and said, “Are you kidding? You guys have beat the living daylights out of me, saying I haven’t done enough for four years, and now you want me to lay back?”
I remember he said, and he said – he looked at me, but I think it was for me, he said, “You haven’t been too subtle about your complaints, either.” Well, deportations are not subtle either. They break up and destroy families.
But I’ve got to give him credit. He got it. It was – he was instrumental in getting it passed. He took our advice, Tavis. He didn’t go to Las Vegas with his bill. He has worked quietly behind the scenes to make it happen, because he understands that it’s a careful crafting of Republicans and Democrats.
I’ll tell you this – I’ve had my issue on immigration with this president, but if Barack Obama were to offer sunlight in the middle of a darkening eclipse, you know there are 200 Republicans that would say no. They’d rather live in the darkness (laughter) than allow Barack Obama to have a triumph.
Tavis: That is true. I’m not raising this question to cast all aspersion or blame at his feet. What I’m saying is that I’m trying to see how in this moment, before he leaves office, what is the path forward to getting immigration reform done?
Because you and I both know, pardon my English, it ain’t going to happen this year. This year’s almost up. All these other issues, like the debt ceiling and deficit reduction and the shutdown of the government – nothing can happen while the government’s shut down.
So now you’re pushing to next year. I don’t see how anything happens next year, because now you’re bumping up against midterm elections, and then after that the guy’s a lame duck.
So tell me – I’m with you. I want this to happen. Just tell me how it’s going to happen?
Gutiérrez: Today, 2,000 Latinos turned 18. It happens every day in America. You saw the results of the last election. Asians, Hispanics, African Americans in this country, overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.
That’s not going to change for Latinos and Asians until they do something about our broken immigration system. And what do we know? Here’s what we know. We know that 66,000 Latinos turn 18 every month. We see this happening.
Two million voted in 2004 – in 2008 than in 2004; two million more Hispanics voted in 2012, and you saw the resounding results. You remember Election Night. It was like everybody woke up and said, “Really? There are all those Gonzalezes and Rodriguezes out there?” (Laughter)
There’s millions of them and they’re voting, and Barack and everybody’s giving them credit for the election of the next president of the United States. You mean they woke up? Really?
You and I have seen them. We all know that this is an ongoing struggle of decades, and it had a culmination. You want to know something? The ugliness of the immigration debate has fostered voter registration, has fostered political activity in our community.
Let me just go back to Harold Washington. You know what? We’ve woke up a lot of Luis Gutiérrezes, just like Harold Washington and the racism he had to confront gave me no choice but to respond.
Or to basically then be a liar to myself. Because you had to make a choice in 1983 in Chicago. So Latinos are making decisions, so Asians are making decisions, so Americans are making decisions.
I think that this president, he can do a lot more, because Lord knows I’ve been out there in the White House, and we’re going to come up against two million deportations since he got elected president of the United States.
But let me just make it absolutely clear: The Republicans have to give us a vote. What’s the positive of all of this? The positive of all of this is that once Barack Obama freed the dreamers and said, “I’m going to act executively,” and 500,000 of them no longer have to fear deportation, he took that on like change, right?
And he took that on like hope, won his reelection, and now he wants to champion the cause and get the bill signed. But here’s what else he did – he fostered a movement of people who today across this country aren’t going to take on.
So tomorrow, on Tuesday, you’re going to see thousands of people on the steps of the Capitol, because I understand, Tavis, when I look, we just commemorated 50 years.
It was people that move President Kennedy and the Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act, not a bunch of politicians in Washington, D.C. It was people and their insistence. They didn’t stop protesting, they didn’t stop taking over the counters.
They didn’t stop their move for integration. They didn’t stop. They didn’t (sic) say, “No, I will be respected.” Today, we are passing through a movement much like the African American community passed, much like women, much like the labor movement, much like our LGBT community.
It’s going to – that’s why I believe it’s going to happen, because you can’t stop justice.
Tavis: I have scratched the surface on this memoir written by the Democrat from Illinois, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. He is the voice in Congress now for 20 years and counting for real meaning for immigration reform.
The book is called “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.” Congressman, congrats on the book, and always a delight to have you on this program.
Gutiérrez: Thanks, Tavis.
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