No Turning Back
Rep. Luis Gutierrez Is Making Immigration Reform a Personal Cause

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.

Nor had it escaped Gutierrez's notice that in the speech accepting the nomination in Denver, Obama gave just one sentence to the subject.

He decided to apply a little pressure, Chicago-style.

"I know Rahm Emanuel," Gutierrez says. Obama's chief of staff, after all, also used to be a House member from Chicago. "Rahm Emanuel is not going to move unless pushed. . . . You gotta say, 'Hey, Rahm, here we are!' "

Gutierrez and his allies generally define immigration reform to include an end to workplace raids and deportations that break up families, and creation of a program for the 12 million illegal immigrants to get in line behind those who have already applied legally. There would also be enhanced border security and other steps.

Latinos voted for Obama in unprecedented numbers, helping swing key states. Gutierrez thinks it's payback time. This year, with Democrats in greater control and an advocate in the White House, success seems possible -- but only if the issue can command attention when the White House and Congress are juggling multiple crises.

Gutierrez launched a cross-country barnstorming tour. He called it "Familias Unidas" -- United Families.

Nearly every weekend since late last year, he has been holding mass rallies in churches or synagogues. The idea is simple and shrewd: Fire up the religious community. And invite, almost exclusively, American citizens to be the speakers -- members of so-called "mixed-status" families, those with some members here illegally and some legally.

The strategy is designed to project the most sympathetic image possible -- illegal day laborers hanging outside the 7-Eleven are a harder sell -- and to show that the issue is more complicated than illegal vs. legal, more gut-wrenching than statistical arguments over labor supply. Let there be citizens with cancer in front of the cameras, children separated from their parents. The more tragic or appalling the story, the better. Gutierrez is aiming directly for the tear ducts of the American people.

Why not humanize illegal immigrants? he says. "Make them brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grandparents of American citizens." It hasn't been hard to find examples; the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that three-quarters of the children of illegal immigrants -- 4 million youngsters -- are citizens by birth.

At the church in Elizabeth, the man with terminal lung cancer -- married to an illegal immigrant, with four American children about to be left behind -- told his story in a barely audible wheeze. Gutierrez sat in the front pew, silently wiping tears with both hands. Then he hugged the man.

He freely admits that the cases in each city on the tour are cherry-picked by professional organizers for maximum impact. So what?

"Emotion is important, it drives you to wish change to occur," he says in his office a few days later, gulping a Coke, his favorite energy drink. "For me it's been transformational. . . . That man is going to die of cancer, and meantime people are thinking of whether or not and when they're going to begin this process. This process cannot wait. The damage is being done each and every day, and some of it is irreversible."

He has presented scores of sad-citizen anecdotes in 21 cities, from Dallas to Detroit, El Paso to Providence, Miami to Milwaukee. "If we could get more people to hear these testimonies, I know more people would be moved to change the system."

In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George listened to the stories and called reform "a matter of conscience." In San Francisco, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heard the testimonials and dubbed raids that separate families "un-American."

"The Family Unity Tour reminded us that our immigration system is broken, that many of its victims are U.S. citizens," Pelosi said in a statement last week. "With Rep. Gutierrez's leadership, Congress will work with the Obama administration to enact comprehensive immigration reform."

But supporters of tougher immigration restrictions suspect Gutierrez may overestimate the power of his tour's argument by anecdote.

"The tactic this year appears to be just appeal to emotion," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "What Gutierrez and his allies are asking is that we overlook the fact that people who broke the law created these situations for their families in the first place."

Mehlman likens it to saying to the IRS: "You got me, I didn't pay my taxes, but you're going to hurt my family."

After Gutierrez had visited 10 cities, he and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were invited to meet with Obama in March. They gave him 5,500 petitions signed by citizens on the tour. The president told them he would address immigration this spring.

"The president has consistently said he wants to start the discussion later this year because our immigration system is broken," said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman.

In his news conference last week, Obama said, "What I hope to happen is that we're able to convene a working group, working with key legislators, like Luis Gutierrez and Nydia Velázquez" -- chairman of the Hispanic Caucus -- "and others, to start looking at a framework of how this legislation might be shaped."

Gutierrez compares the relationship between the president and his Latino supporters to a marriage.

"When your wife kind of looks at you, and she tells you something firmly, and you don't argue because you know you messed up, it makes you a better husband, makes you a better father," he says. "That's all we're trying to do. We love Barack Obama. But we want to make him a better president."

Finding His Way

Away from the immigration crusade, the congressman can be boyishly giddy.

Here he is sharing a plate of buffet food at the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Hall in Chinatown with his wife of 32 years, Soraida. He has just played a funny role in the theater's "Will on the Hill" fundraiser, starring members of Congress performing Shakespeare in outlandish Elizabethan costumes.

"Did you see my hat!" Gutierrez says. He wore a gigantic purple beret with his gold robe.

The couple have two daughters and a grandson. They met as students in the mid-1970s at Northeastern Illinois University, where Luis was a radical leader of the Union for Puerto Rican Students. He led a nonviolent takeover of the president's office to press demands over faculty and curriculum.

But his fierce embrace of his Latino identity had begun reluctantly. The son of a cabdriver and an assembly line worker, Gutierrez went through a phase in boyhood of wanting blue eyes, lighter skin. When his parents, who always dreamed of returning to Puerto Rico, moved the family to a rural village there during his high school years, his sense of alienation compounded.

"In Chicago, everybody said, 'Gutierrez, Puerto Rican,' " he says. "You go to Puerto Rico, they call you gringo, Americanito. You don't speak Spanish. . . . You laugh about it now, but when you're an adolescent, it isn't funny when everyone in the classroom is laughing at you."

This was his immigrant's passage, the beginning of his empathy for border crossers. "I arrived somewhere and said, 'I belong here,' and they said, 'Oh, no you don't.' "

Like many immigrants, he pined for home -- Chicago. But by the time he got home, transferring for his senior year in college, he was fluent in Spanish and inflamed by the rhetoric of Puerto Rican nationalists and black power leaders.

Latinos were a rising force in Chicago, and Gutierrez hitched onto Mayor Harold Washington's political machine. In his first race for alderman in 1986, Gutierrez faced another Puerto Rican. The man's Spanish wasn't as good as his, so Gutierrez challenged him to a debate on Spanish-language television. By the time the cameras stopped rolling, the election was essentially over. Gutierrez's supporters gave him his nickname, and in 23 years El Gallito hasn't lost an election.

One of Gutierrez's first acts when he got to Congress in 1993 was to offer citizenship workshops in his district. He has helped about 55,000 apply to become Americans. The Mexican Americans who are the majority of Latinos in Chicago saw that this Puerto Rican understood their community, and the families of Eastern European descent appreciated the gesture as well. He's been working on immigration ever since.

"The extent to which he uses his time and political capital on this singular issue . . . is unique among members," says Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "In the Congress, the conscience of this issue is Luis Gutierrez."

But critics question how effective he really is. The bipartisan immigration bill he co-sponsored in 2007 didn't make it to the House floor.

"His whole tour around the nation, that's just a showcase," says Omar López, the Green Party candidate whom Gutierrez soundly defeated in the last election. "He was elected to legislate, not to organize."

Gutierrez counters that the politics of immigration is not like that of other issues. A push from the grass roots can help shore up votes in the Congress and force the hand of the White House, he says.

Other say his eagerness to get something passed makes Gutierrez too quick to compromise with Republicans on enforcement.

"He was more than willing to come in our direction when he knew he needed to," says Rep. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who co-sponsored the 2007 bill with Gutierrez.

But Gutierrez's spiritual migration from Puerto Rican radical to a more passionately moderate crusader is welcomed by his allies.

"Some people call him a bomb-thrower, some people on the left call him a sellout," says Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice, an advocate of immigration reform. "As far as I'm concerned, he's perfectly positioned to be a leader on this issue, where you need a mobilized base to be competitive, and you need to cut deals in the center to get it done. So, bomb-thrower or dealmaker? I think the answer is yes."

The Tour Rolls On

Back in the Elizabeth church, Gutierrez was sketching his plan for success.

"We're not asking for someone to do us a favor," he said, switching to English. "We're not saying 'please.' "

When he passes between English and Spanish, he's not translating, the way most bilingual speakers do. He keeps firing the message forward, in whichever tongue, obeying some mysterious linguistic improvisational instinct. If you don't get all the words, you can't mistake the music.

"We're simply saying, 'Look, you [Obama] made a commitment. . . . You know that we know, and now it is time to begin that work.' "

The first leg of the Familias Unidas Tour ends tomorrow with a rally at McCormick Place in Chicago. Gutierrez designed it around a Mother's Day theme. He will pointedly feature the line from Obama's nomination acceptance speech:

"Passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers."

Then the tour will enter a new phase, targeting key districts, with Gutierrez's focus shifting slightly from the White House to Congress, from emotion to math:

"Let's start getting 218 votes in the House and 60 senators to win the legislative battle."

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