Marlen Garcia: Gutierrez fights on for immigration reform

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Back in the spring, as super political action committees socked away millions to back former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a presidential bid, he seemed the likeliest Republican candidate to go up against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The clear winner? Immigration reform. Both candidates back it.

“Hallelujah, we made it to prime time,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, told the Huffington Post in May. “Our issue now is center. … No one can walk away from it.”

A month later, Republican candidate Donald Trump steered the conversation way right and there was talk of revoking birthright citizenship and deporting every undocumented immigrant in the U.S. To make matters worse for immigrants and activists, Bush’s candidacy is now a sinking ship.


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“My take on it was — and Democrats were not too happy ­with me — whether it’s Bush or Hillary, we’re going to do immigration reform, and I can’t wait to sit down with either one of them,” Gutierrez told me in a recent interview. “Did I see that they would commit on steroids to vitriolic anti-immigrant [attacks] with clear signs of xenophobia? They’re creating fear and using prejudice against immigrants for political gain.”

Gutierrez has served Illinois’ largely Hispanic 4th Congressional District since 1993 and has been a longtime champion of immigration reform. The Frontline documentary “Immigration Battle” that aired last month noted that Gutierrez is more loyal to immigrants than to Democrats. He will buck the party in the interests of immigrants. Behind closed doors, the House GOP has considered reform and negotiated with Gutierrez.

The documentary crew followed Gutierrez during a period of negotiations with some GOP members in 2013 and 2014.

In 2017 Gutierrez will try, for what seems like the umpteenth time, to get immigration reform passed in the House.

Some of his past attempts failed with his own party. In 2013, as Democrats poured their energy into passing reform in the Senate, the chamber they controlled, Gutierrez began talking to Republicans on a House bill. Democratic leadership told him to slow down, he says.

“Why do we have to slow down in the House?” he remembers asking. “’Because you [the House] are controlled by Republicans. We want to get the best deal we can where we control it.’ Fine. I understand it. But understand that when I’m negotiating with Republicans. Ellos no son pendejos (they’re not stupid). They’re saying the same thing.”

Political victories for Republicans on immigration could cost the Democrats votes from Latinos in the future.

“I’ve always thought they don’t want Republicans to get credit,” Gutierrez says. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s first do the good work. And let’s get it done.”

Likewise, when Republicans are willing to discuss reform, they don’t want a bill that would keep Democrats in the driver’s seat for votes.

Gutierrez maneuvers in the middle. He forged a compromise behind the scenes with some in the GOP in 2014 to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship for some, but some Democrats were worried. They wanted eventual citizenship for millions more.

But many undocumented residents had told Gutierrez they would gladly take legalization and worry later about pushing for laws that address citizenship. Gutierrez shared that with skeptical Democratics to get them on board.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Republicans pulled out.

More on Gutierrez’s fight for immigration reform next week.


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @marlengarcia777

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