Gutiérrez faced backlash from some members of his own party, Republican lawmakers and conservative news outlets for his comments, but the congressman refused to back down.
Kelly has since pushed back against Gutiérrez’s criticism, laying blame on Congress for the impending demise of a program offering young undocumented immigrants reprieve from deportation.
In an email to Fox News published Monday, Kelly said that as secretary of Homeland Security and in his current post he has met with “hundreds of members of Congress” to find a legislative solution to DACA.
“As far as the congressman and other irresponsible members of Congress are concerned, they have the luxury of saying what they want as they do nothing and have almost no responsibility,” Kelly said.
“I begged and pleaded with them. They did exactly nothing.”
Asked whether it was inappropriate to attack Kelly, a key GOP broker on the immigration debate and a former Marine general, Gutiérrez insisted he saw no issue.
“He’s a politician, okay, not a general. I don’t see a uniform. He’s a politician who works for Donald Trump,” Gutiérrez told the crowd. “A politician who didn’t stand up when the president of the United States attacked a real war hero, John McCain.”
Trump as a presidential candidate attacked the Arizona Republican senator and former prisoner of war, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” The comments were widely derided but did little to stop Trump’s political ascent.
Gutiérrez said Kelly also said nothing to stop Trump from criticizing the family of a deceased Muslim U.S. military veteran or to stop the president’s calls to ban transgender people from serving in uniform.
“I understand” where some of the criticism is coming from, Gutiérrez said, “but what could be more mean and more vicious than to say you’ve got six months to pack up your bag and to leave the United States of America?”
Gutiérrez and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) appeared side by side during a discussion about the future of immigration reform at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute annual conference in Washington.
Coffman, who represents a suburban Denver district, said that for now he’s pulling back on plans to force a vote on the Bridge Act, a GOP proposal to provide legal protections to “dreamers,” as individuals in the DACA program are known, that has modest bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
Coffman described his bill as “a last resort” that should only be brought to a vote if more expansive talks to couple legal protections for dreamers with new border security enhancements fall apart.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to go for a permanent solution this time? And so, I think that’s the preferred route as a permanent solution. The Bridge Act would be viable only if that fails,” Coffman said.
Gutiérrez and Coffman took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Building a few hours after Trump’s top legislative affairs aide signaled that the White House may back off its calls to pair funding for new border wall construction with a bill to provide legal protections “dreamers,” signaling that the emotionally charged issue may prove easier to resolve than initially thought.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also signaled that House Democrats are quickly coalescing around legislation that would grant legal protections to DACA recipients and set them on a years-long course to apply for U.S. citizenship. The Dream Act is co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, including Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Gutiérrez has criticized top Democratic leaders in the past for not making the concerns of immigrants a higher priority. On Tuesday, he said Pelosi and Schumer “are doing a lot — a lot.” But turning to the crowd comprised mostly of Latino congressional staffers, congressional interns, lobbyists, labor unions and civic association officials, Gutiérrez said: “I think everyone — not only the Democrats — is going to do a lot if all of you stay engaged.”