5 Questions with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL)
Posted October 2015
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) has been the most tenacious, unwavering champion of common sense immigration reform in the entire congressional delegation.
The congressman took some time to talk with Marshall Fitz, Managing Director of Immigration Policy, about where the debate around immigration reform currently stands and where he sees it headed.
The president and the Secretary of Homeland Security announced in November of last year a series of initiatives designed to fix those parts of the system that could be addressed administratively. The centerpiece of those initiatives was the directive expanding deferred action to the parents of US citizen and legal permanent resident children known as DAPA. But implementation of that directive has been halted by a federal judge in Texas. What are your thoughts about that lawsuit, the delay it has caused, and the implications for immigrant communities?
The State of Texas and other states – all led by Republicans – sued the President to block DAPA until it moves through the courts, probably up to the Supreme Court eventually. The central issue is that Texas would issue driver’s licenses to people in Texas who have passed the criminal background check, paid their fees and received temporary permission to work, and consequently were eligible to apply for and pay for a driver’s license. It makes no sense, but that one little thing is what is holding up the entire process for the entire country because apparently Texas subsidizes the cost of driver’s licenses and that is at the heart of the court case.
Of course, getting people in the system and on-the-books – and licensing them when they drive and allowing them to buy car insurance – is what Texas and every other state should be for, but the twisted politics of immigration and the deep opposition to anything Obama proposes is driving this issue in the GOP.
One of the DHS directives from last November that was not blocked by the federal court was the new Enforcement Priorities and Prosecutorial Discretion memo. That memo clarified DHS’s immigration enforcement priorities and made it clear that people who have been here for years, have ties to the community, and pose no criminal or security threat are NOT priorities and should not be put in to deportation proceedings. An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute concludes that approximately 87% of the nation’s undocumented population are not priorities under this memo. That seems like an extraordinary shift in the enforcement apparatus. How are you factoring that in to your outreach to communities and your advocacy around the issue?
If the President’s guidelines are being followed faithfully, most undocumented immigrants should be the lowest priority for removal and should have a solid legal defense against deportation if they have the right information, tools, and in some cases, legal representation. Deportations of law-abiding moms and dads are down in recent months, but we all hear about exceptions.
The goal of the Family Defender Toolkit I developed is to give people information they need to use the law and the policies as they are intended. It will help them defend against deportation if they are caught up in the system. The secondary goal is to prepare people – get them gathering documents and evidence they need – because eventually Texas and the other states are going to lose in court and people will be able to apply, pay fees, go through criminal background checks, and get temporary work permits and protection from deportation. It is simply a matter of time.
At the end of the day, we all know that the only lasting solution for our broken immigration system is a legislative overhaul. You were one of a few people working behind the scenes attempting to forge a bipartisan bill during the last Congress. Given the current state of the debate and increasingly polarized politics, what do you think the prospects are for bipartisan agreement on this issue? And relatedly, how do you think Speaker Boehner’s imminent retirement impacts the issue?
Republicans had the best opportunity to resolve the immigration issue during the 2013-2014 Congress, the 113th Congress. The Senate did half the work by passing a bipartisan bill and the House Republicans tried but simply could not muster the willpower to fight against destructive elements of their own base, to work with Democrats and the President, to resolve this important national issue – which continues to be a nasty political liability for Republicans. The saga of trying to get House Republicans to save the Republican Party from their immigration hardliners is at the heart of the new FRONTLINE documentary, “Immigration Battles.” The film captures what happened over the past couple of years.
I am still willing to work with anyone in either party who is serious about reform, but I am not optimistic that anything major can get done legislatively right now given the climate of politics on the Republican side. And while we are watching the Republican Party self-destruct on the immigration issue, it is not all that easy to get Democrats to take action either, even if we could do something without control of either the House or Senate.
I would love for everyone in politics to wake up one morning and be as pro-immigration reform as I am, but I suspect the real difference will come not from a renewed sense of compassion or a new orientation towards common-sense policies, but rather from the politics. I think we are waiting, once again, for the day after election day. Republicans will have that same sad face they had in 2008 and 2012 – the one that reads “I had no idea so many Latinos and immigrants are citizens who vote and that they don’t like what Republicans have been saying about them and their families.” Republicans will have that same face again in 2016, but maybe this time they will do something about it by addressing immigration reform in 2017.
The debate among the GOP presidential candidates over how to address the current undocumented population has been ugly and toxic with calls for mass deportation, ending birthright citizenship and construction of massive walls. Do you worry that some of the extremism in the debate has been mainstreamed? What has disappointed you most about the direction and tenor of the debate? And what do you think the implications are for immigration reform?
If Donald Trump were not a billionaire self-financing his campaign, I would find a way to contribute to his campaign. He is making the Republicans and the fringe – the minority within the Republican Party that opposes immigration under any circumstances – look like clowns. Yes, the racism is hurtful and the fact that every other Republican – and some Democrats – are afraid to denounce mass deportation, racial-profiling, and building walls. But this is a blip, not a new trend. The same anti-immigration arguments have been made – and have gotten traction occasionally – ever since Ben Franklin’s days. Being suspicious of immigrants is as American as pizza and apple pie.
Most of the country is more practical, more compassionate, and more accurate about what actions are actually in their self-interest with regard to immigration and reject the Republican message of hatefulness. I have a great deal of confidence that America will survive Trumpism, Carsonism, and other current maladies and get back on track towards reform in 2017.
What are you hearing from your constituents, both immigrant and non-immigrant, about what they want out of immigration reform?
Immigrant communities are angry – somewhat confused – but mostly very motivated by this partisan political effort to prevent them from being protected from deportation. Most undocumented folks have lived here a long time and have children and just want to work and have the peace-of-mind to know they will be able to see their kids grow up – and not be kicked out of the country of their child’s birth and citizenship. I remain confident that it is a matter of when, not if, when it comes to allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to work and live in the U.S. legally.
The one thing I hear from my constituents and from people around the country is “Don’t give up. Keep fighting, Gutiérrez.” I take that to heart and keep fighting every day.