Rep. Luis Gutiérrez explains how immigration reform gets out of the House

July 22, 2013
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). (Carlos Javier Ortiz-For The Washington Post)

Luis Gutiérrez (D) has represented the 4th District of Illinois, which covers much of Chicago, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993. In 2001, along with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), he put together legislation that would come to be known as the DREAM Act. With the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then-Rep. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) he introduced the Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Act of 2004, or the SOLVE Act, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would become a model for reform efforts efforts in 2006 and 2007.

He was a key figure in both the 2006 and 2007 fights. In 2005, he, along with Kennedy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and then-Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), introduced the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, which turned into the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which passed the Senate. In 2007, he and Flake introduced the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, or the STRIVE Act, yet another comprehensive reform bill.

Most recently, he has participated in the House "Gang of Seven" negotiations to develop a bipartisan bill for comprehensive immigration reform in that chamber. We spoke Friday morning; a lightly-edited transcript follows.

Some of the details of the Gang of Seven agreement came out this past week, and it was reported that legal status for undocumented immigrants would be tied to a mandatory E-Verify system for employer-level enforcement getting implemented in five years' time. I think a lot of people were wondering who gets to decide when and if that's happened, if so much is going to be riding on that determination.

I think it is unfortunate the details of our plan are being revealed to the public outside of the totality of the picture. I look at that and say, "Wow, you know, if it was like workers and management, all the management stuff came out, right? But none of the workers, what they negotiated, did." Obviously you make agreements based on the totality of the issues. You give and you take in order to make sure that you an agreement.

I will tell you, E-Verify has always been an instrumental, essential part of comprehensive immigration reform, from the first time I introduced it. I think part of it is that so many people are new to this debate and this discussion, that they go "Oh! E-Verify, those are the tough guys on immigration!" Well, then I guess I'm a tough guy on immigration. "Those are the ones that don't want amnesty!" Well, then I guess I don't want amnesty, because I've always been for E-Verify.

So, I will simply say that E-Verify is an essential part of a program. Its implementation will, I believe, of all of the enforcement components, be the most effective at ending illegal immigration to the United States. And so I'm gonna hope that it's implemented as quickly but we want to make sure it's implemented fairly too and that it's implemented well.

Barack Obama is so into enforcement that he began E-Verifying for all those companies that already have federal contracts, and indeed there are many companies that are using a verification system for their employees on a voluntary basis. They said it would take three to five years to implement the program. So it is the one part of enforcement that we are equipped to do, because there are human resource centers at all of the big companies. They're used to doing this stuff. I mean, the Washington Post, you guys have a a person who already knows and they tweak their computer, put an new app on there, and they're probably ready to go.

So you mentioned that the details of the deal that have been released are only those that benefit the "management" side, so to speak. What are some of the demands of the workers, metaphorically speaking, that are getting met?

I'm not going to discuss them. I think that it is detrimental to a process to discuss the specifics of a proposal, and it also, to me, weakens the trust that needs to exist between the members. Because I understand there's a lot of pressure being put on them. [Rep.] Judge [John] Carter [R-Texas] is a former old crusty judge from Texas, and a great human being. And I know the kinds of threats that he and [Rep. Sam] Johnson [R-Texas] are receiving, both political and physical, and it's tough for them.

The nation has a lot of divisions and one of the fault lines is immigration, and it takes a lot of courage for people to step forward and to try to heal those divisions, and they're doing it, so I am very proud of them. Also Paul Ryan, and even [Rep. David] Valadao [R-Calif.]. Tomorrow we are going to be in Bakersfield, and, you know, he's a freshman, he's never had a town meeting in his life, and he's going to have a big one tomorrow. There's going to be hundreds of people coming out, and I think it shows a lot.

Later today I expect to get Congressman [Mike] Coffman [R-Colo.] from just outside Denver. He's going to have a position paper on immigration. He won't be able to join me on Sunday at the luncheon, but he wants to give me something that I will be able to read to others. I can't tell you what it says, because he's going to share it with me today, but he said he's going to do an op-ed piece in one of his local newspapers on his position. Now that's progress.

Everyone understands the fundamentals of comprehensive immigration reform. I don't want to be a hard-ass with you, but [sharing details] is just not conducive to an agreement. But I will tell you there are elements of our agreement which will heal immigrant families and foster healing of those immigrant families that are not included in the Senate version.

Everybody has this idea, "Oh those mean, nasty, Republicans over in the House." Well you know what? When you sit down with other human beings and you make an agreement, many things come to the surface. You'd be amazed at how much agreement there can be when you respect the, I don't like to use the word "secrecy" of the process, but the confidentiality which is necessary in the process. Just like you need confidentiality to do your job, I need confidentiality to do my job.

House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), whose last name is amazing. (AP)

Speaking of the process more generally, how do you see your negotiations as fitting in with the small-bore, one bill-per-topic approach of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte? Do you see your agreement as informing the kind of bills he wants to put forward? Do you think you can work with him to get comprehensive reform through the committee? What is that relationship like?

I joined the committee in order to get this done. I left 20 years on the Financial Services Committee to join the Judiciary Committee, to become a junior member there from my senior position on Financial Services, because I thought it was important to be there. I still haven't given up that that was a wise decision. And I have said many positive things about Chairman Goodlatte and his oversight over the Judiciary Committee. I'm still optimistic those words will have been well placed.

For example, we're gonna have a hearing next Tuesday, which I'm very happy we're going to have, on young immigrant youth, DREAMers, and the necessity for legislation. Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor has already expressed that he wants a pathway to citizenship for them. That seems to be, without putting words in their mouth, what they'd like to do for young people. And I'm happy that's happening because what we've up till now — there's a contradiction, obviously, between what happened one month ago in the committee, where they adopted an amendment by [Rep. Steve] King [R-Iowa] which says, "You gotta deport them all", and for the 400,000 that have received deferred action, would suspend those work permits and Social Security cards.

Now, we're going to talk about not only keeping them, which is a great thing to do, but allowing them to become American citizens. Wow, have I had such an impact? Has the movement had such an impact in four weeks? I think that it speaks much more to the uncertainty of just how the Republican majority is going to address this issue, and so the uncertainty gives me hope. The glass will be half full. If you can provide a safe sanctuary for children, how far behind can you be with the parents? I think that's kind of the contradiction between what's expressed in their legislation and what they're beginning to do. But you know what, that's part of the process.

Does it pose a challenge that there was a House vote on the Dream Act in 2010? Are people worried about being perceived as having flip-flopped on that?

You mean the Republicans?

Yeah.

I don't. Let me tell you why. John McCain and I introduced comprehensive immigration reform. It was Kennedy, he and Flake and I, interestingly enough, how the group really stays small almost 10 years later. It's been 10 years. We started negotiating in 2002. We finally got a bill in 2004. There's an interesting picture of us all together somewhere around here. There's Flake, and me, and Kennedy and McCain over in the corner. And we're still working together.

My point being he was there. Flake, interesting enough and courageously enough, reintroduced the legislation in 2007 with me. He didn't give up, we introduced it twice. First it was Flake-Gutiérrez, when he was in majority and then became Gutiérrez-Flake, but we kept the legislation going. McCain was running for president of the United States, as you recall, and didn't reintroduce it with Kennedy.

But then he's back, and Rubio, I think, is a wonderful example, I don't think of flip flopping, but of change and evolution. And Democrats, we believe in evolution so it'd be a little bit of a contradiction if everything stayed stagnant and the same.

America is changing. Whatever happened in 2010, this is a much different country nearly three years later-- 2 1/2 years later, we are a much different country. There was an election and a referendum, held in November. The immigrant community is better known. Their cause is better understood and more accepted. I think Rubio was confronted with new evidence.

So we have constantly to fight people's prejudices and their prejudices are informed not out of hatefulness but just out of a lack of understanding and information. So if you do not have information and understanding, and you don't have experience, you have prejudices. And how do they get resolved? By information, and all of a sudden you go, "Well this is pretty stupid and I'm better informed today."

Now are there those who are just bigoted towards immigrants? Yeah there's that group, but when you look at the Congress of the United States today, even when Democrats were in the majority in 2007, even when we were in the majority after Barack Obama's election in 2009, there were not 218 votes that you can count for comprehensive immigration reform.

And I say that based on the DREAM vote that occurred. There was 208 Democrats. So there weren't 218 Democrats at that point to pass the bill by themselves. Now, there weren't very many Republicans because of the 8 we got, 5 of them were leaving. So you see, there's never been 218 votes.

Let me state categorically for the Washington Post — news flash! There are 218 votes for comprehensive immigration reform. I said that with a good counter of votes, Rahm Emanuel, who as mayor is very, very generous when it comes to immigrants, but as a member of the House of Representatives was kind of stingy. And I don't say that to be mean, just to put in some perspective for the readers, right?

So even with his stinginess, right, we found 185, and he is very good at counting. I still remember Jan Schakowsky, I, and he sat in his office over at Irving Park when he was a member of congress and the head of the DCCC, and we went through this. We said, "Okay, here is where we're at." We thought 185. Well, you know, you do the math, where are you gonna get 30 republicans?

And so what Barack Obama kept saying to me and Speaker Pelosi and everybody, every time we'd say, "Let's organize for comprehensive immigration reform," so they said, "Oh, slow down Luis. There aren't 218 votes. Why don't you just go away? Go find yourself 45, 50 Republicans and when you've found them, organize them, right? And have them ready to join the Democrats? Not that we're going to help you in any way to galvanize that. Come back and talk to us."

Well guess what? I'm back. They're here. The 45, 50 Republicans that we were always looking for — they're present. And they're present and they're embodied in Carter, and they're embodied in Paul Ryan, and in Sam Johnson, and in [Rep. Mario] Diaz-Balart [R-Fla.], who has been wonderful. He's been very good, very upfront and I think has helped to give hope, especially as we communicate with immigrants and the Latino community, and they see the two of us working together.

Because people get disillusioned. If it were easy, someone else would've done it and would've done it already. This is difficult stuff, and there are a lot of forces that are aligned to stop us from doing it.

I had a colleague of mine come up to me and say, "Oh Luis, when you're out there with Valadao on Saturday, you're not going to say a whole bunch of nice things about him are you?" Damn straight I'm going to say a lot of nice things about him!

I mean, this is about 11 million undocumented people-- 1,200 are deported everyday and this is about their children, and the devastating effect that this having. This is about people dying in the desert every week. This is about women being raped in the fields everyday. This is about children being left without their mom and their dad. This is about people losing fingers and hands and eyes and dying because of unscrupulous employers. This is the devastating effect that our broken immigration system has.

If someone steps in and says, "I'm ready to join you, I'm a freshman member, I haven't done this before, and I am a Republican, but I am ready to step in," I think you need to applaud that. I think you need to say thank you, and appreciate them, and we've already done it. When Paul Ryan came to Chicago, he was received with mariachis and applause, and what are you supposed to say? "Oh, thanks."

No, we need to be celebratory about those who are building a pathway to justice. If you're constructing a new world where people finally don't live in fear, that's to be celebrated. But, the constraints of the Congress of the United States are such that partisanship is so pervasive, that it's hard.


House Speaker Boehner (left) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (right). (AP)

One thing on that. One could interpret the things that Speaker Boehner has said recently as meaning, "Sure, you might have 218 votes. I don't care. Show me 118 Republicans. If I don't have the majority of my caucus, I can't do this." How much of a constraint do you think that is?

Well, it is a constraint. And part of what I am attempting to do is to work with members of the other side of the aisle. That's why I will be visiting California and Denver this weekend to build what it is Speaker Boehner says is necessary, but also to build the voice of America, that says, "You know Speaker, why is it that the Washington Post and the very conservative, business-oriented editorial board of the Wall Street Journal will almost be plagiarizing each other?" Not that they are of course, but the symmetry there?

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce? They're always at loggerheads, they say mean, nasty things about one another. They reached an agreement! How is it that [Sen. Pat] Leahy [D-VT], the chairman of the Judiciary committee, all he wanted was for gay people to be treated like straight people in terms of immigration policy, and he didn't even get that? And McCain and Rubio made an agreement with Menendez and Durbin, two pretty partisan guys on one side and a couple of other partisan guys on the other side said, "We're going to leave partisanship alone and find an American solution."

When you look at growers and the union organized by Cesar Chavez reaching a national agreement, when you see evangelicals and Baptists, conservatives, together with Presbyterians and Unitarians, and Muslims and Mormons, all coming together to find common ground to solve our immigration system, why is it that the only place in the social, economic, political spectrum of America that we can't find this is in the House of Representatives?

It is the only place where we say, "Oh no, here, we want a majority of the majority. Here we want a Republican solution. Not an American solution but a Republican solution, a private solution to the problem of immigration. We know this is the the people's house, but we're not gonna let the people's voice be heard, and let democracy reign, until 120 out of 435 agree to allow the rest of them to be able to express themselves in a democratic fashion."

That's a quandary that I think the Speaker is going to find himself in. People are saying, "Allow democracy." So I'm going to challenge that. It's almost too cavalier. "Of course Luis, you have 218 votes, but you need a majority of the majority." It's almost like that is what is taught in basic civics in America, and why would you question it? It's the new truth.

We're going to question that new truth. You just say, "Wait a minute, that's not exactly fair. I thought the guy with the most votes wins."

One avenue around that I've heard some people speculating about is a discharge petition. Those are obviously extremely rare. How much discussion is there…

A discharge petition on what?

On comprehensive immigration reform.

You mean actually drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill, or we introduce a bipartisan bill and there's a discharge on that? Or there's a discharge on the Senate bill?

If you and your colleagues in the Gang of Seven come up with a bill, if you can get…

You mean when we come up with a bill.

Yes, when you come up with a bill.

When you introduce the bill in September.

Sure. And you can get 40-odd Republicans to sign onto it and bring it to the floor, is that something you envision or is that just too far-fetched?

We have overcome all of the major obstacles and there is basically agreement of every major point we have. We have small things to decide, and we will decide on those things and the drafting on the language. But I've come to understand, after 20 years, that finishing the drafting of legislation is the first part.

Critical to the success of the bill, more than the drafting, is people's adopting the bill as their own, and that takes, you need to go out and educate people on the elements of the bill, answer their questions. It's big, it has a lot of elements to it. They're going to want to know the difference between the House and Senate. That's going to take time, and you need to build coalitions. I fear, if we leave here right now? And we're gone for 6 weeks? I don't think that's a good thing for a piece of legislation that has neither been explained, nor given proper time to be adopted by any of the key constituent groups.

I was just thinking, "Why does everybody always call the Washington Post and tell them all the mean stuff? The enforcement stuff?" Nobody talks about the family reunification stuff that we have, that we negotiated. It's almost like, "Forget about the pathway to citizenship that we fought for in our agreement." But we're going to get it done. I feel very, very confident about getting it done and having the bill, and moving that bill forward. August is going to be a great month. It's going to be a month of lifting voices, and education throughout America on comprehensive immigration reform. I think that we are really ready to do it when we get back in September.

Gutiérrez (second from right) shortly before being arrested at a White House rally against Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law. (Sarah L. Voisin-The Washington Post)

One narrative that you hear about the 2006/2007 fights was that there was energy for reform, but then opponents of the legislation just shut down the switchboards, and flooded Congressmen with opposition notes and calls and the whatnot.

How different is the dynamic now? Is the input you're getting more balanced? Is your vision of August as less a time where members go home and get read the riot act about this by their constituents at town halls, and more one where they see support for it?

Well, number one, there are a lot of veterans of that fight. It's easier to win if you know what's coming. You've been through it, you're battle tested. You can fight whoever you want. You'll fight people you fought before. You've lived to see another day and fight.

The Senate's done, right? The battle is going to be here in the House of Representatives. I know one thing: this movement has never had the depth and the breadth in American society that I described to you earlier. Media, faith-based, economics — whether workers or owners of the means of production — you name it, at every level, there's a lot of unity.

And it's pretty deep. And it's in the Republican party too, like it's never been before in those years that you refer to. You didn't get people from Liberty University saying, "We've got to do this." And the AFL-CIO were at loggerheads on the issue then.

So my point is, it's a different place. And there was an election. 2008 was an important election, but 2012 really capped it in terms of the issue. Republicans went to Tampa and said, "Self-deportation!" They put this stuff in their platform, they said, "We will encourage the other 49 states to adopt SB 1070." Although prior to the damn convention, the Supreme Court had already outlawed, found unconstitutional two thirds of it.

And then [Mitt] Romney just put some icing on the cake and said, "I will veto the DREAM Act." We've gone a long way. Next week the Republicans are talking about having hearings to pass it. Come on, this is a different place. I am just trying to give you concrete examples of why this is a different place. And even Raúl Labrador, who left us, you know he didn't leave us over issues of family reunification and legalization. He left us on some economic issues which I know we can resolve.

How involved is he still with this?

When all is said and done, he is essential to the success of this process, because (a) he is very knowledgeable about the issue within the Congress of the United States and more specifically within his conference, and (b) he is very well respected within very conservative circles of his conference. You have credibility both, because of your knowledge of the issue and because of your political point of view and those that share it with you.

Earlier you expressed some frustration that early in the Obama administration, they didn't provide support for you in rallying support for comprehensive immigration reform.

It's true, they didn't.

One argument you sometimes hear out of people in the administration is, "Things are so polarized now, and people are so partisan, that anything we endorse is going to become kryptonite to Republicans, and we can only hurt that effort." Do you agree with that, and more generally, what role do you see them playing in this process?

To the president's credit, he has heeded the advice of those of us working in the halls of Congress. We met with him in January and I and others suggested to the president, "Great idea, we're so happy and delighted that you're going to Las Vegas. Don't introduce your own piece of legislation." He didn't take that very well. But he heeded our advice.

Unfortunately, all his staff didn't get the memo. I really felt bad that the president has to then call, because of the irresponsible actions of his staff, and leaking ... to newspapers, has to call to apologize to McCain. But in the end, you know what? McCain and everybody says, "See? He's calling to apologize." He's saying, "No, I'm respecting your process." And at the State of the Union, I think he did a great job.

I think he continued to play that role. So not to use it as a bully-pulpit, bully, but the pulpit part. That is, shine a light on the issue, keep it ever-present in the minds of the American people. Talk about why this is good for America. And without saying, "And pass the Senate bill!" Without saying, "Those mean, nasty people that are in our way," or, "If they don't give it to us now, we'll take care of them in November." He has to be careful about how he does it.

So the moment in which he is the key, single leader on immigration reform — he had that opportunity. It was called 2009, 2010. He could have adopted even in 2011 and 2012. He decided not to. So that moment has passed. I think he's recognized it, and that's a good thing. It demonstrates a commitment to the issue, and a political majority that we're gonna need to get this done.


Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) won't support any immigration legislation, even bills he likes. (AP)

I was struck by something that Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on the issue, which is that he would oppose any legislation that hits the floor regarding immigration even if he supports the text of it, because he's afraid it would go to conference with the Senate bill and be used as a stalking horse to get a conference report that includes a path to citizenship to the House floor.

How much are you hearing that kind of concern, and is that actually a plausible way that this can get done? Having small legislation out of the House combined into a comprehensive package?

First of all, he says he's against it cause he's against amnesty. Welcome to the team, congressman. I'm against amnesty too. How is this amnesty when 11 million people who've spent 10, 15, 20 years in this country contributing to Social Security, and the billions of dollars they have contributed are confiscated, and they're told, "You want to get legalized? Gone, make no claims, because we just confiscated those billions of dollars, which means that I and other Americans citizens just have a shitload of more money for when we retire."

How is it amnesty when 11 million people have to pay every tax, and pay back taxes, and then not get one means-tested program for 10 years? How's it amnesty when Obamacare is healthcare in the country, and you're denied any subsidies, subsidies which are essential to making the program work, at least your access to it, especially if you're a migrant worker and you're making $10 an hour and it's going to cost you $14-15,000 without the subsidies?

You know, how's that amnesty when we add 20,000 border agents, in addition to the 20,000 that are already there? 700 miles more of fence, drones and all kinds of other technology? North and South Korea, I think, is less than 200 miles. We're going to build 1400 miles of fencing. How many members of the armed forces are stationed permanently in the DMZ?

Aide: I think it's less than 40,000.

Gutiérrez: My point is, how's that amnesty? There are going to be those that aren't going to do it. I doesn't matter how well you inform them about the issue. Right? They're going to be against it. I assume that you are correctly relating to me what he said, but he said that he can't do it then they'll go to conference.

Don't you see this anti-democratic, anti-democracy bent in everything they're saying? In other words, "I can't allow this process to go forward because the majority might win. Therefore, I'm going to use my minority status to obstruct. I'm going to join 30 other Republicans and say, 'You're not going to get anything because conference equals amnesty in your mind, or equals getting an immigration bill.'"

How does that speak to American values? I don't know. If you take that, there would be no vote for women, blacks would still be back at the back of the bus, the gay community would still not be recognized. Come on, it is the triumph of the majority, right, that sustains and strengthens democracy. You really weaken democracy when you allow a minority to use legislative tools to thwart the will of the majority. How's that gonna make you feel? That's what people rebel against.

A lot of what's driving the demand to come to the United States, legally or illegally, is the violence in Mexico. Do you see trying to ameliorate that situation as being one part of a comprehensive package?

Most studies will say, between people leaving and people coming in, it's zero, it's pretty flat. But — and this is my own personal opinion — how is it that we don't take more responsibility? Because the guns that protect the cartels come from America. The money that finances the cartels are not Mexican pesos. They're dollars. And the consumption, and the insatiable demand for the supply of the drugs, comes from America.

That can't be sustained in Mexico. It is only sustained, because of our war on drugs, which we have done a terrible job on. We lost. And that has had a very crippling effect on the basic institutions of civil society. In Mexico, it's crippling.

Let's say you and I get in a jam. You really think you're going to call 911 and a cop's going to show up? And if he does, he's really going to be on your side?

And why is that pervasive? Drugs. So I think we have a responsibility, absolutely, because if America tomorrow, we say, "No, we don't want dope," I think it will cripple the cartels. What if we simply say "Let's stop having all of these gun dealers on the border"? We don't do any of those things. We don't even eliminate the hundred dollar bill to make it hard for them to be able to pack their own money.

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UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
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Evan Soltas | July 22, 2013