Gutierrez Oval Office Visit: The inside story

Written By By Lynn Sweet Washington Bureau Chief Posted: 04/18/2014, 06:22am

Last Thursday, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were about 15 minutes away from a vote on a resolution demanding President Barack Obama curb deportations when the Chicago lawmaker got a call from a White House staffer.

Please hold off the vote. Why not first talk to President Barack Obama, the staffer said to Gutierrez, according to sources familiar with the exchange. An invitation was extended to meet with the president in the Oval Office later that day.

The last-minute bid to quash a resolution by rushing House Democratic Hispanic leaders to a meeting with the president was a dramatic and unusual move by Obama’s team. But the White House had a fire to put out.

The Obama administration was scrambling to avoid a vote on the harsh resolution drafted in reaction to the deportation of illegal immigrants, with the removals growing on Obama’s watch.

Even though a resolution carries no force of law, this one was highly symbolic.

The White House, I am told, was worried that the storyline could end up with divisions between Democrats — rather than in this election year, continued GOP House resistance to taking up meaningful immigration reform.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform package in June 2013. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last year nixed ever calling the comprehensive Senate bill for a vote. But he has refused to allow a vote on portions of the Senate measure that could pass on a bipartisan roll call because he does not want to bring to the floor immigration bills that do not have the support of the majority of the GOP majority.

Gutierrez has been a loud critic of the Obama administration for the swelling number of deportations on his watch. He manages a complex relationship with Obama, who of course he knows from back home in Chicago — slamming Obama for moving slow on immigration, a friend-to-the-end when it came to stumping for him in 2008 and 2012.

Gutierrez has two perches on the House when it comes to immigration: He is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force and he is on the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

During a March 7 press conference, Gutierrez said, “it is just plain dishonest for Republicans to say they can’t consider immigration reform because they don’t trust President Obama to enforce the law. And it is just plain dishonest for President Obama to say his hands are tied and there is nothing more he can do under the current law with regards to prosecutorial discretion.”

In fact, said the quotable Gutierrez, aiming his quip at Republicans, Obama enforces the deportation laws so much, you can call him the “Deporter-in-Chief.”

Against this backdrop came the request to Gutierrez to help persuade the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to delay the vote. After a meeting of more than an hour, the CHC — which, I am told had the votes to pass the resolution — held off.

The reasoning was this: You can’t tell a president you won’t meet with him. Moreover, the meeting could result in some movement that would moot the need for the resolution, which in essence was a pressure tactic to get some White House movement.

Hours after the call, Gutierrez, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Rep. Xavier Beccera, D-Calif., met with Obama in the Oval Office.

And a short time after the meeting, the White House announced that Obama ordered Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, to, as White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday, “do an inventory of the department’s current practices to see how it, the department, can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.”

Gutierrez told me they talked about the “pain and suffering of broken families” at the Oval Office meeting with Obama. They discussed, said Gutierrez, “Let’s figure out a way to end this nightmare.”

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet

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