Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who for years has been a torch bearer for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, says he is optimistic that this time his fellow lawmakers will pass an overhaul of the flawed system.
The Illinois Democrat believes the momentum for a reform that both would tighten security and provide a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants is too accelerated to slow down or altogether stop.
“The support for immigration reform is too broad,” Gutierrez said in an interview Friday with Fox News Latino. “Karl Rove supports it, Democratic strategists support it, evangelical and South Baptists both have joined to support it, the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce both support it, and Cesar Chavez’s son and growers have reached an agreement on it.”
Gutierrez is in New York this weekend to take part in a congressional tour of historical sites and events that reflect U.S. immigrant history. He is a member of the bipartisan House “Group of Seven,” which has been drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He and others who support most of the bill are working to win over the more conservative Republicans who object to a key part of it – the part that gives many undocumented immigrants a path to legal status.
Gutierrez concedes that neither of the two major parties is approaching the immigration reform challenge in an unblemished way.
“Democrats sometimes come to immigration from a premise that we’re the majority in the House, we’re not,” he said. “Republicans, when they come to immigration, fail to recognize that the country spoke on immigration reform and they want us to fix the problem.”
If both parties can extricate themselves from those stubborn positions, he said, “We could come to an agreement.”
Despite the deep divisions among Republicans in the House over how to deal with illegal immigration – do they provide a legal status to some, or seek to deport them all, somehow -- Gutierrez claims that he has enough Republicans to get 218 votes in the House for an immigration reform bill.
This weekend, the New York visiting delegation – which also includes more than 70 political, religious and business leaders from around the country – has plans to witness a naturalization ceremony, and visit Ellis Island, Gracie Mansion, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the African Burial Ground National Monument and the National September 11 Memorial, among other places.
Besides Gutierrez, other lawmakers include Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Eric Cantor, (R-VA) and who is House Majority Leader, Charlie Rangel (D-NY) as well as former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who served under President George W. Bush.
“This trip will provide us with the opportunity to put politics aside and focus on the common link that we all share,” said Diaz-Balart in a statement. “Our country was built by -- and continues to prosper as -- a nation of immigrants.”
The trip is being organized by Faith & Politics Institute.
Many conservative Republicans say their constituents do not support providing undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, and they feel no political pressure, as a result, to support that.
“If they do that, the Republican Party will be a party of provinces and towns, but the Democrats will be the national party,” said Gutierrez. “Republicans will only be hurting themselves as a national party if they keep thinking that way.”
The immigration tour comes on the heels of a highly controversial comment by Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, who said in a media interview that many undocumented youth are drug mules and should not get be able to legalize their status.
In an interview last week with the conservative news outlet Newsmax, King said that while some undocumented immigrants brought as minors may be exemplary members of U.S. society, more are drug mules who undermine the country.
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.”
The comment by King, known for his many inflammatory remarks about immigrants, drew a firestorm of criticism, including from leaders of the Republican Party. The party has made efforts to combat its image as hostile to immigrants and to Latinos in particular.
He said House members should go out of their way to keep King at bay when considering the immigration issue.
“Steve King’s comments were reprehensible,” Gutierrez said. “They’re stupid and ignorant.”
“Republicans are running away from Steve King,” he said. “They’re clearly hateful, bigoted statements that have no place in the body politic and in our conversation.”
The solution, Gutierrez said, is to sit someone like King “in a corner and [have] the adults take over the conversation.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.