Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., is the first Latino elected to Congress from the Midwest. He's known as one of Congress' leading champions of immigration reform for his focus on the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Last October, he and several other members of Congress found themselves on the opposite side of the law when they were arrested for taking part in a civil disobedience protest in Washington, D.C., along with hundreds of other immigration activists.
In poll after poll, a majority of Americans said they were OK with lawmakers providing an opportunity for those living illegally in the country to get right with the law. But a comprehensive bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate in June last year, which included a pathway to citizenship for those 11 million people, stalled in the House, where Republicans have taken a piecemeal approach to crafting the reform -- rather than focus on a single bill. A major point of contention: the fate of the 11 million immigrants, and whether or not they should have a pathway to becoming U.S. citizens. Amid that dispute, momentum for immigration reform fizzled.
Fast-forward months later, after Republicans announced their principles for immigration reform, giving advocates hope that a solution is near. But while a consensus is forming at the center, the left and right wings of this debate -- the Tea Party conservatives who want no reform this year, and the liberal Democrats who want citizenship for all undocumented immigrants or nothing -- remain far apart.
During a phone interview on Monday, Gutierrez sounded like a voice of reason in this debate. He reminded Democrats that they will have to give something to go get something, but he also said that President Obama can, and should, do more.
IBTimes: House Republicans have finally released their standards for immigration reform, which offer legal status instead of citizenship. Do you think their fears of what they suspect would be an amnesty are justified?
Gutierrez: I think that it is clear that they are not offering anything that can be called amnesty. When you look at the Senate version ... one thing that is striking about it is that there are many hurdles to overcome to reach citizenship. It’s long. It’s arduous. One critical point is that we not allow a permanent condition to evolve from our immigration policy where someone stays as a second-class citizen in the United States. ... If we position ourselves as saying, “It must be citizenship for all 11 million or there is nothing for anyone and there is no path forward to reaching a resolution that fixes our broken immigration system,” we won’t fix it. We just won’t fix it.
IBTimes: Did President Obama open up the floodgates for others when he decided he would give DREAMers some reprieve?
Gutierrez: What I believe is that the youth were wonderful advocates for themselves. I think they introduced themselves to the American people in a way that just captured everybody’s good will and the best perspective. I think they did a lot of that on their own. They should be congratulated and I think they’ve won that debate. Now we need to win the debate for the other 10 million undocumented in this country, including the parents. You see that reflected in the Republican principles. They talk about youth. They talk green cards. They talk about a path to citizenship. Now, as I read the principles, again, it would be critical to see what specifically they propose. But if, true to their principles, there is no special pathway to American citizenship, that means that all other non-special pathways will exist like those currently in law. I think that’s an area in which we can have a conversation and can establish a way forward between Republicans and Democrats. What is going to be very, very important -- while it is clear to me and to many more -- [is] that if it’s an immediate pathway for citizenship, for all or nothing, then we won’t move forward. Democrats have been very positive in their response but also [demonstrated] a degree of skepticism about just what will be in the details. For Democrats, the details matter, so we are looking forward to the Republicans putting some meat on those bones.
IBTimes: Do you believe the president can do more on immigration reform and if so, what else can he do?
Gutierrez: Two months ago, I and nearly 30 of my colleagues in the House of Representatives asked the president of the United States -- on his executive authority -- to stop the deportation of certain groups of immigrants. Just name a couple, the parents of American citizens, the parents of the DREAMers, that if they have not committed any other violation of the law other than their immigration status, they should be set aside. I think the president can do more at that level. I think he is setting the right tone in his State of the Union by actually not raising it to very high emotionally pitched level in his rhetoric and saying to Republicans he knows that there are Republicans who want to work with Democrats to get this done. I think that’s exactly the way to move forward from the presidency.
IBTimes: Republicans have put legal status on the table. Should Democrats and the president take this offer? Why is citizenship so important?
Gutierrez: It is important because otherwise what you have done is you have created someone who can never be equal to the rest of the working men and women in this country. For me, personally it is important. I want them to have all the same responsibilities that I have as an American citizen. I pay my taxes, to defend my country, to be loyal to this nation that only comes with American citizenship. I also want them to have all of the same benefits and privileges that come with American citizenship. It has been our tradition. America has never been a nation that has invited people here and not allowed them to become Americans. I don’t think we should begin today. I think the immigrants today are as hardworking and as deserving of a pathway to American citizenship as those in the past. Look, I understand that given the dynamics of the debate if I insist, and if Democrats insist on a pathway to citizenship for all immediately or we will not negotiate any further with the Republicans, we will get absolutely nothing done. This will become a total failure.
IBTimes: Having said that then, do you believe Democrats can do more on reform and if so, what can they do?
Gutierrez: I think Democrats need to wait and evaluate the actual specifics of the legislation and be ready to understand a couple of things: Democrats are no longer in the majority in the House of Representatives. We do have the position, which is supported by the vast majority of the American people and that’s what Republicans, who are in the majority need to understand. I think we each have to come with an understanding that while Democrats are no longer in the majority, Republicans who are should listen to Democrats. The Republican Party needs to understand that the American people have made a decision about this. It is my hope -- and certainly the principles are a suggestion that my hope is more than something I’m just thinking about -- that we’re going to get it done. I look at the Republican proposal and I say, “Welcome. Welcome to the debate. Welcome to the discussion.” I say to the Democrats, “Respond carefully. Respond after we made an evaluation of the proposal and say, “Let’s talk. Let’s negotiate.” (...) I think Democrats need to understand that if we wanted a better immigration proposal, an immigration proposal that reflected more Democratic Party values, we should have done it when we were in the majority.
IBTimes: Rep. Paul Ryan said immigration reform is “clearly in doubt.” Do you think Republicans really want to move this issue across the finish line or are they playing politics until 2014 is over?
Gutierrez: I believe that there are many members of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives who want to follow in the footsteps of Senate Republicans. Do I believe there are House Republicans like John McCain? Yes. Like Senator Rubio of Florida? Yes. Absolutely. The thing is that once you leave the extreme kind of xenophobic right-wing of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, I think you’ll see many Republicans who want to foster good immigration policy to fix our system. Democrats and Republicans agree on border security. Do we agree that we should have an E-verify system? Yes. Do we believe that we should have an agricultural visa program and workers' program that gives justice to agricultural workers and provide for their needs? Do we believe that the same thing is necessary for our high-tech industry? Yes. The question here is: are we going to be able to find a solution that properly respond to fixing the lives of 11 million undocumented and fixing them in a way which secures us as a nation, but also does justice to them and is fair to them?
IBTimes: House Republicans don’t trust the president. Do you think this trust deficit is justified, and what, if anything, can the president do to rebuild it?
Gutierrez: They don’t trust the president. House Democrats don’t trust House Republicans. We’re going to have to bridge the gap somewhere, right? I think for members of the House Republican majority to gather with leadership of the Democratic minority they are going to have to step outside the comfort of their caucuses and outside the traditional talking points of their respective parties to move forward. Look, Republicans have moved from self-deportation. A year ago it was self-deportation, veto any DREAM Act and why don’t we just replicate [Arizona's] SB1070 to 49 other states. They’ve moved from that to saying that DREAMers can have a pathway to citizenship, we can legalize the other 10 million. Things are changing. Democrats should also receive well that change and respond accordingly so that we can reach the kind of compromise that is going to lead us to success.
IBTimes: We’ve heard several times that fixing the immigration system is essential to the economy and national security. However, a majority of immigration violations are civil, correct? So how much does this threaten public safety let alone national security?
Gutierrez: When you have 11 million people, which the government has little or no information on, that leaves you less than safe and secure. We should know who they are. We should know who is working here with proper identification. We should know that. The immense majority of undocumented workers are here working, sweating and toiling. We want to make sure that we can separate them from those who come from foreign countries to do harm. I think making sure that we have a verification system makes us all safe. I’ve always believed that if you are born in America you should have the first opportunity to fill any job created in America. The only way you are going to get that done is to have employment verification. So let’s get that done. I want people to come here legally to the United States. What I want to end is this broken immigration system and I want to end forever illegal immigration. The only way you’re going to do that is by having comprehensive immigration reform and by having security. So I believe that’s important. ... Look, if you take 11 million people -- the undocumented workers -- and you remove the uncertainty of their future in this country, you will unleash the entrepreneurial spirit, you will unleash their commitment. What does that mean? Instead of buying a used $1,500 car because they know they are undocumented and don’t know what to lease because it may be taken away and confiscated from them, and because they are not sure about whether or not they can make the payments, you know what they’re going to do? They are going to buy a new car. They’re going to buy homes, establish businesses and that is going to create more economic activity.
IBTimes: The Southern border is the most secure it has been in decades, yet the argument continues that we need to secure the border. Do you think that argument still holds up as a reason not to get reform done?
Gutierrez: Do I believe we have a secure border than ever before between Mexico and the United States? Absolutely. Do I believe that there are measures that might make it better? Yes. I’m ready to hear which measures. If what it takes for me and others like me to say to Republicans and to other Americans that we will take other steps so that they feel satisfied, so they feel that their concerns have been responded to, then I think we need to do it.
IBTimes: It’s apparent that the most pressing issue in this debate at this time is the fate of the 11 million. What can be done on this front if there is continued inaction from Congress?
Gutierrez: If the Congress of the United States does not act then I think then we need to take other steps in order to protect them. The fact is that there are millions of American workers in this country and it has devastating effects on their marriage, on their children and a crippling effect on their families. We can’t defend the women in the Armed Forces of the United States properly. Imagine what’s happening to the millions of undocumented women in this country. I think we have a real moral crisis that we need to respond to. In the absence of congressional action I’m certainly going to look for other avenues. And I suggest to the president that he use his executive authority to protect them.
IBTimes: What else can you do though, personally, if Congress doesn’t do anything? What are some of the other avenues you can use to protect them?
Gutierrez: Every day we fight to stop a deportation. Every day we fight to keep a family together. I think we are going to need to expand on those. I assure you that there are additional measures that will come forward.
Laura is a U.S. politics reporter for the International Business Times. She was always fascinated by the BBC World News each morning on the radio in Jamaica. That, and a love...