By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 7:27 AM
Luis Gutierrez wasn't surprised that the Obama administration left him off the guest list for Wednesday's state dinner to honor the Mexican president.
"I didn't expect an invitation," said Gutierrez, an Illinois congressman and chair of the Democratic Caucus Immigration Task Force.
After all, Gutierrez's last White House visit, on May 3, did not go so well. He showed up wearing a white T-shirt with red letters that read: "ARREST ME NOT MY FRIENDS." The Park Police obliged.
Officers handcuffed Gutierrez, along with the immigrant advocates who had gathered with him across from the White House. They had come to protest a strict new Arizona law as well as the administration's overall lack of progress on the immigration issue.
The dinner to honor President Felipe Calderón falls in the middle of a furious debate over immigration, with emotional issues like border security, drug trafficking, civil rights and xenophobia mixing uncomfortably with giddy welcoming for Salma Hayek and Eva Longoria Parker or the mogul Carlos Slim -- all reportedly on the guest list. Some of the noisiest advocates and agitators for immigration reform in Congress will be looking in from the outside, hoping that the American and Mexican presidents seize the opportunity to push for progress on the issue.
"They should say, We are going to get this done!" said Gutierrez. "The most positive thing about this visit is that you cannot ignore it."
"Calderón will come and put a face on an issue," said José Serrano, a Democratic congressman from New York who lamented that the administration didn't make immigration a priority last year. He said he had not been invited to the dinner, but to an early-morning welcoming ceremony.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, also did not receive an invitation, according to his office. McCain has abandoned his enthusiastic, aisle-crossing support for comprehensive immigration reform, especially as he defends his conservative bona fides in an unexpectedly tough primary fight. "Build the danged fence," a scowling McCain growls in a campaign ad airing on Arizona television.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus will be represented by its chairwoman, Nydia Velázquez, at the dinner, according to a staffer at the caucus. Its members have repeatedly, fervently expressed frustration that no immigration overhaul legislation has been pushed forward in Congress. And Gutierrez, for one, said that Obama first engaged, then backed off, because he said members of congress already had their hands full.
"We are in a kind of yo-yo phase," Gutierrez said of the back and forth.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement that "The President has been emphatic about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but he cannot move legislation on his own, he needs both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work with him to get it done."
Gibbs added that the administration "will continue to engage partners on both sides of the aisle including Democrats in Congress who can help reach out to Republicans to find the support necessary to move a bill forward."
The Illinois congressman said that he happily accepted the invitation of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during Easter recess in April to introduce him at a rally in Las Vegas. Reid, who is facing a tough reelection battle and is depending heavily on Latino turnout, told the crowd that Washington should tackle immigration reform this year. "Then the White House put a bath of cold water on it," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez complained that within the president's inner circle, "there is nobody who is a good influence. You think David Axelrod wakes up and thinks that this is important? There is nobody to counter Rahm," he said, referring to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who Gutierrez believes has convinced Obama to shelve immigration reform.
It's hardly a seat at the big Calderón dinner, but Obama, according to Serrano, has booked time on Thursday for a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Gutierrez said he's willing to give Obama more time, but not much more: He would consider a failure to move on new legislation by the Fourth of July a formal invite of another kind.
"You are going to see more and more acts of civil disobedience," he said.