On Monday, when Congress is expected to take up the DREAM Act, a highly controversial bill that allows undocumented students who came to the United States before age 16 to become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or joining the military service, it will be in large measure because of the efforts one man – Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D) of Illinois.
Gutiérrez spent part of Thanksgiving recess traveling to different states, pleading the case of the tens of thousands of undocumented youth who forego college because they cannot afford the out-of-state tuition rates they are forced to pay because of their status.
“They didn’t decide, when they were six, seven or eight years old, to come here [illegally],” said Gutiérrez, 56, in a recent interview during Thanksgiving recess. “Should we hold children responsible for the actions of their parents?”
“They’re all American except for that little paper,” Gutiérrez said. “Culturally, linguistically, socially, American is who they are. We’ve educated them, so let’s let them join the military, let them go to college. Let them give this country a lot in return for what we’ve given them.”
For Gutiérrez, this is not a political speech, and immigration is not a partisan issue.
“Fighting for undocumented immigrants is a true mission for Luis Gutiérrez,” said Rev. Miguel Rivera, the leader of a national group of conservative evangelical pastors, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC).
“Rep. Gutiérrez has invested his time trying to make life better for Latinos, for immigrants, not only in his district, but for those around the nation.”
Last year, Rivera and other pastors joined Gutiérrez for a rally in favor of comprehensive immigration reform – specifically, provisions that would provide the undocumented with a path to legalization – that the congressman held at a church in Elizabeth, N.J. The visit was part of a series of trips Gutiérrez made across the country – to more than 25 cities – to drum up support for legalization for the undocumented.
His speeches during his "town hall" meetings are impassioned and electric -- the undocumented who hear him speak say they feel inspired, hopeful.
During a recent speech in a Brooklyn church in support of the DREAM Act, Gutiérrez urged the large crowd to commit to working with him to getting the administration to adopt policies that could help the undocumented.
Holding a pen up high, he told the audience to send pens to the White House to press President Obama to issue an executive order that would put a moratorium on deportations, which have reached record levels. There has to be a halt, he said, to deportation casualties that result from an immigration system that all agree is deeply flawed.
He told them that Republicans had blocked efforts to help them get a path to legalization, and that they were the enemy.
Some conservative Latinos, like Rivera, agree. But others, like Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, say that such talk hurts the chances of a bipartisan agreement over comprehensive immigration reform.
"A lot of Republicans support the DREAM Act in concept," said Aguilar, who is the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship during the George W. Bush administration. "It makes no sense to send these minors back to a country they don't know. But Gutiérrez and other Democrats have not seriously reached out to the Republican leadership."
"And saying that Republicans are the enemy is injecting the issue of racial confrontation," Aguilar said. "You can't pass legislation without Republican support. It's not going to happen, you're not going to get Republican support, when you make the rounds saying that Republicans are your enemy. That's a political leader, not a Latino leader."
Gutiérrez's supporters say the congressman is not playing partisan politics, and has blamed both his party and Republicans for the inaction on immigration reform.
"Rep.Gutiérrez makes both parties uncomfortable," said Douglas Rivlin, Gutiérrez's press secretary, "because he calls on politicians to put good policy ahead of simplistic political calculations."
Rivlin said Gutiérrez has tried to reach across the aisle for bipartisan cooperation on working on an immigration reform bill.
"For years he worked shoulder to shoulder with Rep. Jeff Flake [R-Ariz.] to bring Republicans to the table for sensible, bipartisan reform," Rivlin said. "But the last two years have offered remarkably few opportunities to work with any Republicans willing to break publicly with the national talking point of 'no' or challenge the vocal minority within the Republican base opposed to realistic immigration reform."
Proponents of strict immigration enforcement describe Gutiérrez as a bleeding heart liberal who is calling on Congress to reward lawbreakers. They say that any kind of pardon for illegal immigrants will beget more illegal immigration, and send the message worldwide that U.S. immigration laws are meaningless.
They want any immigration measure to stress enforcement, including strengthening the borders and cracking down on illegal immigrants who are already here. They also want the government to more aggressively punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Gutiérrez, a diminutive man who often mixes English with Spanish when speaking to other Latinos, was born in Illinois to Puerto Rican parents.
Though he does not come from an immigrant family, he says he empathizes with immigrants, with being seen as an outsider, with dealing with discrimination.
“When Puerto Ricans started coming in large numbers,” he said, “even though they were U.S. citizens, newspapers like the New York Times said it was an invasion. Puerto Ricans were described as unruly, as not wanting to assimilate. They even said we had tropical diseases and that we shouldn’t be allowed to come here.”
His desire to fight against injustice was stoked when he reluctantly went to hear a speech by Rep. Harold Washington, who was running to be Chicago’s mayor.
“I thought ‘They’re all the same,’” he said. “But my friend told me he was different.And you know what, he was.”
Gutiérrez worked to get Washington elected, and says he was aghast at the blatant racism he said the white Democratic leadership in the state displayed over Washington.
“They didn’t support him, just because he was black,” he said.
Gutiérrez, a one-time cab driver and social worker, decided he would mobilize support for candidates and, later, for himself, through a door-to-door, church-to-church grassroots approach.
“Martin Luther King Jr. did not wait to call the Speaker of the House, or the Republican Party chairman, or the president, before he fought for civil rights,” Gutiérrez said. “Rosa Parks did not wait to see if she could get support for legislation before she did what she had to do.”
“If it’s immoral, then you denounce it,” he said.
His district’s large Mexican population gave him a glimpse of the problems of the undocumented, he said.
“Every time they came into my office, everything was immigration,” he said. “Bendito!
He organized workshops offering people information about the immigration system, and helping those who were here legally to become naturalized.
Once he got to Congress, he was told he had to pick an issue to work on – “like picking a major in college,” he said.
Immigration was the first choice, he said. Besides, he added, no one else in Congress seemed to want to touch it.
Gutiérrez has sponsored several bills that call for providing the undocumented with an opportunity to legalize. He and some other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told the president that they would not vote for the health care bill if Obama and some Democratic leaders failed to act on a promise to work on immigration reform.
He was arrested earlier this year during a protest outside the White House for immigration reform. In October, he decided against running for mayor of Chicago to stay in Congress and keep leading the fight to help the undocumented get a chance at legalization.
“It’s not amnesty,” he insisted.
In the case of the DREAM Act, he said, why deny a shot at legalization to youth “who are the brightest, the smartest, who want to make the ultimate sacrifice of giving their limbs, their bodies, in defense of this country?”
Gutiérrez, as well as other supporters of immigration measures that would help the undocumented come out of the shadows, had hoped that President Obama would act on his promise to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority.
He has criticized the president, as well as leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress, for not doing enough to reform the broken immigration system.
Now, with Republicans poised to take control of the House of Representatives in January, Gutiérrez is pushing hard for a lame-duck session passage of the DREAM Act, which he said would be a “down payment” on a future overhaul of U.S. immigration policy.
Despite his tireless rallying across the country, he is not holding his breath for its passage during the lame duck session.
“I’m not worried,” he said. But not passing it “will just drive people further underground.”
“What country are we going to send them back to?” he asked. “They’re Americans.”