Rep. Luis Gutierrez Fights to Put Human Face on the Immigration Reform Struggle

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

The audience of more than 700 packing this church in Elizabeth, N.J., already knows him from appearances on Telemundo and Univision, so there's little need for the introduction by the Spanish-speaking master of ceremonies:

"¡El Moisés del movimiento de inmigración en los Estados Unidos!" (The Moses of the immigration movement in the United States!) "¡El Gallito que no huye, que va a pelear por la reforma migratoria!" (The little fighting rooster who doesn't flee, who will fight for immigration reform!)

A great wave of applause propels Rep. Luis Gutierrez to the microphone before the altar. The Democrat from Chicago is way outside his congressional district, but at the center of his world.

He brings no notes. He starts slow. His words surf on crests of emotion, tacking fluidly between English and Spanish, in the singular oratory of a Chicago-born Puerto Rican Catholic who preaches like a Baptist.

"There are some who say, 'Luisito, aren't you being a little strong?' " he says in Spanish, drawing responses of "No! No!"

"Can we be weak in protesting the injustice of these testimonials?" The assembly has just heard from a boy whose father was deported, a girl who fears losing her mother, a citizen dying of cancer whose American children will be left in the care of his wife who may be deported.

"I can't be weak in front of these people. You can't come to this church and cry and the next day not raise your voice in defense!"

The voice booming from the slight, wiry figure is unexpectedly big and deep. His role in this political passion play isn't what you might expect from his background either. His first language was English. His parents were born citizens in Puerto Rico. The border crossing closest to his district leads to Canada.

And yet Gutierrez, 55, has traversed frontiers in his career, real and metaphorical, and one constant in 16 years on the Hill has been immigration reform, including trying to blaze a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants now estimated to be in the country.

Now, as some other House and Senate champions of the issue step back for reasons of politics or health, the immigration debate is about to get even more emotional.

Because El Gallito is leading the charge.

Mobilizing a Message

Gutierrez felt happy that November night in Chicago, watching Barack Obama declare victory. He was also perturbed: Not a word about immigration reform.


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