by Joe Narkin
(Plain Press, December 2013) While reading from his recently published autobiography, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois encouraged a group of 80 enthusiastic activists gathered at the San Lorenzo Club on October 25, 2013 to continue to press for comprehensive immigration reform on behalf of an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented residents living under threat of deportation in the United States.
While an estimated 58% of undocumented residents are from Mexico and 23% from other parts of Latin America, a significant percentage are from other countries, many of whom have remained in this country with expired visas.
“The thing that we need to understand is that everybody is responsible for the broken immigration system,” said Gutiérrez, an 11-term member of the House of Representatives who considers the deportation of undocumented residents to be a critical civil rights issue.
While supportive of Barack Obama in general and hopeful that President will seize the opportunity to take a strong leadership role in the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform law, Gutiérrez has been frustrated that the president did not honor his campaign pledge to make the make the passage of such a bill a priority during his first year in office and virtually ignored the immigration issue during his entire first term.
In fact, according to Gutiérrez, President Obama went in the opposite direction and has permitted partisan political considerations to allow his administration to preside over the deportation of approximately two million undocumented residents during his term in office, an average of nearly 1,200 deportations per day and the highest number of deportations under any President in U.S. history. A great number of the undocumented residents deported were identified by authorities through minor infractions against the law, such as routine traffic stops.
While he was a U.S. Senator, Obama voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of a 700-mile fence along the 2,000-mile Mexican Border, mostly in Texas and Arizona.
In order to increase the pressure on Congress and the President to move forward on immigration reform, Gutiérrez has resorted to civil disobedience in order to bring public attention to the plight of undocumented residents and he has been arrested three times while engaging in protests over federal inaction in securing their civil rights. He was arrested and fined most recently, along with seven other member of Congress, this past October.
Gutiérrez finds civil right violations most egregious for the foreign-born children who were brought to this country, often when they were infants, by parents who were undocumented. As such children come of age, they often find that, lacking a social security number or a green card, they cannot find legal work and, in many states, are prevented from attending college because they are not eligible for in-state tuition rates and financial aid, in addition to being at risk for deportation to what to them is an unfamiliar environment.
Led by Gutiérrez, the House of Representatives passed the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in 2010, but the bill was killed by opposition in the Senate. This Act would have provided protection to over 1 million undocumented young people.
Only when faced with the prospect of a bill sponsored by Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, which was widely viewed as a ploy designed to solicit Latino votes for the Republican Presidential candidate Milt Romney, did Obama take limited action.
Just five months before the election, President Obama issued a memorandum to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency with administrative control over the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which called for a deferment for two years, upon application, of deportation actions against eligible DREAM members who came to this country before the age of sixteen.
Another population of undocumented residents that Gutiérrez feels is especially vulnerable is the children born in the United States of parents of undocumented workers who are deported. Often derided by immigration reform opponents as “anchor babies,” these young citizens are faced with leaving the country with deported parents or staying in the United States without parental support. There are 5 million such children in the United States, according to Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez is of Puerto Rico descent and was born to parents who moved to Chicago for better job opportunities. The family moved back to Puerto Rico when Gutiérrez was a high school student. Despite language difficulties and the need to become familiar with different cultural norms, he quickly became an activist in support of Puerto Rican independence, a position he continued to hold when he returned to the United States to attend college. Gutiérrez finds it surprising that many people in this country are ignorant of the fact that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens.
While living in Chicago with his wife and first daughter, Gutiérrez was an early supporter of the candidacy of mayoral candidacy of Harold Washington, who went on to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago.
In his autobiography, Gutiérrez tells of how the Democratic Machine in his home ward, fearful over the prospect of electing a Black mayor who was running on a platform of governmental reform, tried to persuade him to put up a sign on his home in support of the Republican candidate. Gutiérrez refused to comply and, while the crime was never solved, his home was subsequently firebombed, ostensibly in retaliation for this refusal.
With the support of Mayor Washington, Gutiérrez won a seat as a Chicago Alderman, where he was strong advocate for affordable housing. Gutiérrez was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 where, in addition to his activism in support of immigrant rights, he lived up to his nickname, El Gallito (Little Fighting Rooster), in battling for address of numerous progressive issues, including campaign finance reform.
Gutiérrez is the Chair of the Immigration Task Force of the congressional Hispanic Caucus and a member of the House Gang of Seven, a coalition working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.