Q&A: Patt Morrison talks to Congressman Luis Gutierrez about immigration reform

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), speaks in favor of national immigration reform at a rally on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), speaks in favor of national immigration reform at a rally on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. John Moore/Getty Images

A man named Luis Gutierrez was arrested in front of the White House last week. He and a few dozen other people linked arms and sat down and said they weren’t going anywhere until President Obama signed immigration reform. He was wearing a shirt that said in Spanish, “Arrest me, not my friends.”

Below is a transcript of the Q&A recorded on May 5, 2010:

Patt Morrison: But, this Luis Gutierrez is Congressmen Luis Gutierrez, a democrat from the Fourth District of Illinois, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the Financial Services Committee. Thank you for being here.

Luis Gutierrez: Patt, it’s wonderful to be with you.

Morrison: So this protest that you did, you’ve got a lot of power in Washington, why did you take it to the streets?

Gutierrez: Well, I was invited by a number of organizations here in the Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland community and they had organized because they felt it was necessary for the millions of undocumented children, some of whose parents have already been deported, for the fear that community feels because of the separation and the destruction of the family, given our failed immigration policy, that it was time to speak out against the immorality of an immigration system that destroys families and causes such fear of the federal government and of institutions.

So, they invited me and I thought they were right. I think it is time that people understand there are other avenues of action and at the inaction of the Congress of the United States. We should have different tactics and so peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience seemed to be to be an appropriate one so we could bring attention. This is all to bring attention to the plight of the undocumented workers, of the families and particularly of those children.

Morrison: Congressmen Gutierrez, so this wasn’t just about the Arizona immigration bill, which has gotten a lot of people out into the streets.

Gutierrez: The events across this country were organized prior to the Arizona, prior to 1070. Eighty cities were organized. Now, did we collectively decide that we would all be Arizonans that day? Yes. Did we decide that we would focus on Arizona? Yes. Did we show a sign of solidarity with Arizona? Yes. But, when we said we want comprehensive immigration reform that is what we want the president to act on.

Morrison: You were a supporter of President Obama’s. I suppose on many things you are still. Why do you think you and the president have parted company on this? Is it the substance of immigration reform or is it the politics?

Gutierrez: I’m happy you bring it up because I have a 99.9 percent voting record with the president of the United States. I can’t think of an issue that has come here legislatively in which I haven’t voted for him. The energy policy, health care, reform of our financial services systems, I’ve been a supporter of this president and of his policies.

Morrison: I sense a ‘but’ coming here somewhere.

Gutierrez: Yeah, well but we have a huge vacuum when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform. Candidate Barack Obama made it very clear, enthusiastic, unequivocal promise that he would bring about comprehensive immigration reform. Now, do I understand the politicians either walk away from their promises or that new developments make keeping those promises difficult? Yes.

It’s been difficult to get health care and Republicans have stymied the way but we moved forward. It’s been difficult to do energy policy but we’ve moved forward. It’s been difficult today to look at reform of our financial system but you know what, we moved forward because we understand that those issues are important.

All I’m saying is that Mr. President move forward, show the leadership and the skills. You know I still remember Barack Obama in 2004. I remember how he dazzled us. I remember how he encouraged us. I remember that we all jumped out of our seats. I remember how he enthralled the audience. He can do that. I want him to do it around comprehensive immigration reform. I want him to use all of those skills that I know he has and the power I know he has and the influence that I know he has to bring about change on this issue. And you know what? If we lose, we lose together, but we fought together.

Morrison: The words that have been ascribed to you, the sentiments ascribed to you are anger, dissatisfaction, disillusionment.

Gutierrez: Well, you know something — I’m here in the Congress of the United States. I see families being ripped apart. In the last year, I’ve visited 40 cities. I’ve been to Bridgeport, Conn,, Salinas, Calif., I’ve been down to Iowa, the meat packing plants there, I’ve been to sweatshops in Miami.

I’ve visited and run the gambit and I know the trials and tribulations, I know the suffering that exists. I’ve seen the exploitation. I’ve seen women abused and exploited both financially and physically and I think the president knows it too and he should act on it. Yeah, I’m a bit disillusioned that he hasn’t acted more on the issue and I think that someone needs to speak loudly and clearly about that.

Morrison: I’d like to ask you about some of the party considerations here, the political considerations here. Clearly, financial reform and jobs had to come first, that was probably the primary reason that people who voted for President Obama did so is economic reasons. Then we have the question of carbon emissions, which has now been raised to the fore because of the spill in the gulf.

There are several things that had to come first on the agenda. Is it really the right time to put through immigration reform considering that it may imperil many not only other elements of the president’s and the Democrats agenda but even Democratic seats and democratic control of Congress come November.

Gutierrez: You know what, when it comes to immigration, it always gets the short stick. It’s always put at the bottom of the agenda. There are always other considerations: let's get the majority, we might lose the majority. Why are there all these political considerations about political party and the power and the influence of political party?

Shouldn’t it really be about what’s right and what’s wrong and what kind of priorities we should have as a nation. The issue of immigration just didn’t pop up. The fact is that I introduced the bill with Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain. We’ve been fighting for it. There have been two votes on the Senate floor; two times it’s been brought up for debate and vote on the Senate floor.

This is not a new issue and he knew that when he was candidate, Barack Obama. But he saw when he went to L.A. or when he went to Chicago or Miami, when he went anywhere to speak to a Latino audience, he saw what would shake those rafters, he saw what would bring people to their feet, he knew what would motivate people in unprecedented numbers to come out and vote in November, it was the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. And I think he should understand that if he’s going to use that kind of power to get people to vote, he should understand people’s expectations are going to be very, very high.

Morrison: Does that mean that if between now and November there is no comprehensive immigration reform bill that comes to Congress that you would say to Latinos, maybe you should show President Obama how strongly you feel about this by not turning out to vote.

Gutierrez: I don’t know, I don’t know that we’re there yet. I will tell you that I think the growing frustration and dissatisfaction is there. But you know I also see Arizona and I’ll tell you, whatever frustration and anger exists because of the inaction of the Congress of the United States, I think there might be a more compelling reason to come out and vote because of Arizona.

So, everything tends to balance themselves out in the political equation. I haven’t made that judgment but I think that Latinos and immigrant voters should be careful. I’ll tell you what. I didn’t vote for every Democrat in the last election. When I got a ballot, I voted for those Democrats that shared my views, shared my passions and that shared my politics for public policy. You should never vote for a candidate because they are of your party, you should vote for a candidate because they share your values.

Morrison: You said you didn’t vote for some Democrats, does this mean you voted for Republicans?

Gutierrez: No. I just didn’t vote.

Morrison: You know, you’ve stood out among your Democratic colleagues there, you’re talking about how you got your rear end kicked around on "60 Minutes" and in the Washington Post. So how do your colleagues regard you?

Gutierrez: I don’t know. You know, I have a wonderful relationship with them. You know, we introduced the bill; we’re near 100 co-sponsors. I meet with them, I meet with the speaker, I have a great relationship with my colleagues, they understand my passion for this issue, they share it.

I like to think that a lot of them understand that someone has got to take the bullet for it to move the issue forward. Many of them are probably happy that it’s me. They’ll go to the state dinners and have a nice meal at the White House and they’ll go on Air Force One ad they’ll get those treats an they will be able to move their political agendas forward.

I understand, everyone has different roles to play. I want to go home to Chicago. I want to make it absolutely clear that when we do comprehensive immigration reform, I’m going home to Chicago; I’m going home to my wife, my kids. I’d love to go teach at a local university, I’d love to do other things with my life.

Morrison: So this would be your signature?

Gutierrez: I stay here because of this issue. And I tell you and anyone else who will listen, that is what keeps me here grounded on this issue.

Morrison: Congressman, you mentioned the Arizona legislation, that certainly was treacherous ground in California when Republicans rallied around Proposition 187 and it lost Latino support for a generation to Republicans in this state. Is that what you see happening. are your Republican colleagues concerned about that?

Gutierrez: I think that (SB) 1070 can be the other coin of Proposition 187. When I get here to the Congress of the United States in ‘93, I started the first national 'lets become a citizen' campaign. I remember how difficult it was to get people to sign up to become a citizen.

Then came proposition 187 in ’94 and let me tell you, it became a lot easier because people understood and it made people realize the importance of becoming citizens, of voting and of getting active. It brought new value, the attack brought new value. People wanted to equip themselves with tools.

There are millions of permanent residents, millions in key electoral states across this country who today can apply to become American citizens, who can be equipped to be voters during the next presidential campaign and I think that is an avenue that we have yet to truly use and exploit in the sense of the immigrant community and it’s one that I certainly am going to make sure doesn’t stay at that level.

Morrison: Can you tell me everybody agrees that immigration needs reform? But, the question is, and if you could detail how you think it’s going to look, because in 1986 under President Reagan there was considered to be the end all and be all of immigration reform bills, and a lot of people would say, look we’re essentially back where we were then. Maybe a little better, maybe a little worse. What’s different this time?

Gutierrez: What’s different this time is there are millions more. The arguments are shaped so differently, we don’t have a Republican president like Ronald Reagan leading the charge; like you know only Nixon can go to China, maybe only someone like Ronald Reagan can lead the ability of this nation to see immigrants in their true light. So I think things are different.

But at the same time they are the same. You see the plight of an undocumented, it’s larger, it’s bigger but they have many more friends and many more allies. I’ll tell you, the Latino community wasn’t key and instrumental to the reform for the passage of the 1986 immigration reform control. I was a council member in ’86 and it wasn’t on my agenda or on my radar. It is today, and I think that is a fundamental difference. Our community is tight and they see it as a civil rights issue of this moment.

Morrison: Then the question becomes, what happens once again we have a number of millions of people who are here without documents. what happens if this becomes cyclical?

Gutierrez: If we stop illegal immigration as we know it, if we go after employers, if we give people a verification system before they can get a job and if you get a job you’re employer is going to jail. We have to stop the ability of those being able to come to this country and get jobs undocumented.

We can do that, we just haven’t set up the structures to do that, what we’ve done is we’ve criminalized them all and spent a lot of time and a lot of energy in passing laws that discriminate but not laws that actually legislate an end to illegal immigration.

Morrison: So, Congress, because I know the time is brief, so you would want legislation, comprehensive reform that would say we’ll deal with the people who are here now but let’s stop any future illegal immigration?

Gutierrez: Absolutely and I know how to do it. If you don’t have the correct ID you can’t get a job and we have verification system and if you violate it you’ll go to jail just like when you don’t pay your income taxes. We have to enforce the law and we have to put the correct measures in place to enforce that law and end it.

Morrison: Can you explain to people then about the fact that some legal immigrants here don’t see any daylight here between themselves and illegal immigrants? Can you explain that difference to people who don’t understand why that’s the case?

Gutierrez: Let me put it to you this way -- when my daughter goes to high school her classmates are undocumented; when I go to church on Sunday, the people who sit in the pew with me, undocumented. When people show up to factories to go to work and many of their coworkers are undocumented. Then they happen to be their cousins, their aunts, their uncles, their brothers and their sisters. They are an integral part of our community at every level. That’s why there is no distinction.

Morrison: Congressman, happy Cinco de Mayo.

Gutierrez: Y tu, tambien.

Morrison: Congressman Gutierrez is a Democrat from the Fourth District of Illinois; he is a member of the Judiciary Committee and the House Financial Services Committee. He’s also chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force.

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