Carlos Gutierrez knows what it’s like to be terrified that the universe could suddenly turn against you.

He felt it at age 6, when the Castro regime imprisoned his father.

(Matt McClain / The Washington Post)

He felt it at age 12, after the family arrived in the United States and the CIA mistook his father for a Cuban criminal, threatening his family’s standing in this country.

He felt it again, at age 40, when his Mexican-born wife and son were applying for U.S. citizenship after 14 years of waiting.

Gutierrez eventually rose to become chief executive of Kellogg and President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary. But now he worries for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and is putting his reputation, his energy and his connections behind a new effort to give them a shot at the opportunities he’s enjoyed. And he plans to watch the State of the Union address, hoping that President Obama will convey the same sense of urgency about their fate.

“How must they feel every morning they get up? They’re not sure if they’ll come back home and their children will be forced to live alone,” Gutierrez says, his low voice cutting through the ambient chatter and clinking silverware inside a hotel lounge in downtown D.C. “It’s every single day — that could be the day you’re deported.”

At 59, Gutierrez still looks the part of the chief executive: slicked back salt-and-pepper hair, trim mustache, perfectly tailored navy suit, gold cuff links — a gift from the White House — emblazoned with “President of the United States of America.” He is now a vice chairman at Citigroup, commuting between New York and his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife. Gutierrez — whose net worth is reportedly between $21 million and $93 million — likes to keep his passport on him at all times, tucked inside of his suit jacket. He pays for his drink with the loose bills he’s stuffed into his pockets.

In 2007, he was Bush’s right-hand man in the immigration fight — the president’s primary envoy to the business community and a key ambassador to Capitol Hill. He was devastated by the legislative loss, recalling the undocumented immigrants who were weeping outside the Senate the morning the bipartisan immigration bill failed to pass.

While his family came here legally, Gutierrez sees no legitimate reason to let those who came here illegally languish.

“Yes, of course, I think about the difference between my experience and those who came in without papers,” Gutierrez says. “However, I believe I owe my country to back the best policy without letting personal resentment set in. This is a lot bigger than me.”

He has now rededicated himself to the cause as the immigration fight has reemerged in Washington. Together with GOP lawyer and political operative Charlie Spies, Gutierrez has launched Republicans for Immigration Reform, a new super PAC that allows them to raise unlimited sums of money to “give some backup” to Republicans who support a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Although he no longer has the entourage of a high-powered government official — he shows up at the Capital Hilton early, with no handlers, a soda with a lime on the table — he’s still an emblem of power inside the Beltway. A middle-aged man sitting nearby approaches Gutierrez unsolicited, thanks him for his service and leaves his business card behind.

Gutierrez is counting on that clout and credibility to draw more donors to his nascent super PAC. But having just advised a presidential candidate who had harsh words for undocumented immigrants, he also wants Republicans to fundamentally reconsider how they think about immigrants — and how immigrants may think about them. He harkens back to the words of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his voice rising: “People may agree with your economic policy, but if they think you want to deport their grandmother, they’re not going to vote for you.”

Moving to the U.S.

Men in olive green uniforms and long dark beards showed up at his childhood home in Havana to arrest his father, Gutierrez recalls. It was 1960 and the elder Gutierrez, Pedro, had resisted the Castro government’s attempt to seize the family’s pineapple cannery. Pedro Gutierrez spent a few days in jail. At that time, it was still relatively easy for Cuban citizens to flee the island. Soon after Pedro’s release, the family boarded a plane and was welcomed into the United States. Carlos was 6 years old.

The Gutierrezes spent the next seven months camped out in a hotel in Miami, where young Carlos began to pick up English from the bellhop. (One of the first words he learned: “Rubber band.”) He recalls it being a happy experience — he and his older brother first thought they were on vacation and discovered the novelties of American culture. (Toys at the bottom of cereal boxes!)

After a few years, the family moved to Queens in New York City, where he had his first brush with the vagaries of the U.S. immigration system. Federal officials discovered Gutierrez’s father had the same name as a criminal in Cuba, placing him under a cloud of suspicion and the family’s application for citizenship in jeopardy. Gutierrez, who was 12 at the time, was terrified.

“It was just a living hell,” he says, leaning far forward in his chair, his voice gravelly and quieter when talking about his parents. “Are we going to have to go back to Cuba? . . . Was it too good to be true?”

The U.S. government eventually realized it was dealing with two different men with the same name. Gutierrez remembers what the judge at the Brooklyn courthouse told him the day he became a naturalized citizen: “You have as much right to call yourself an American as anyone else who was born here,” Gutierrez recalls. “In fact, maybe you have even more of a right, because you chose to be an American. People who were born here didn’t have a choice.”

Still the American Dream eluded his father, a fact that to this day pains Gutierrez. “He always wanted to re-create his business in Cuba; he wasn’t able to,” Gutierrez says. “He died a poor man. He was my hero.”

Roughly three decades after becoming a citizen, Gutierrez would again come directly in contact with the U.S. immigration system. His wife and teenage son — both born in Mexico — applied for citizenship, an ordeal that had taken 14 years because Gutierrez is not native-born. (Gutierrez also has two daughters — one born in the United States, the other in Mexico.)

In the weeks leading up to the citizenship test, Gutierrez once again became consumed with worry. “What if, for some reason, my wife has trouble with the test? Or my son?” he said, his voice becoming more pinched as he leans into the chair’s armrest. “Then we’ll have a divided family.” When his wife and son finally emerged from the Grand Rapids, Mich., courthouse as naturalized Americans, Gutierrez told his son, Carlos Jr., “You know, I can die now, peacefully, knowing you are a U.S. citizen.”

His start in business

Gutierrez never earned his college degree, dropping out of Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology to join the workforce. He says he only recently learned not to be embarrassed about his lack of academic credentials. But it never hurt his trajectory in the business world.

He spent 29 years working his way up at Kellogg, the cereal giant, starting by selling boxes of Frosted Flakes out of a van to mom-and-pop stores in Mexico. He developed a reputation for turning around low-performing divisions, eventually moving up to manage Kellogg de Mexico, and then the company’s Canadian division.

He was ultimately entrusted to run the entire company in 1999, at a time when Kellogg was lagging behind its competitors. As chief executive, Gutierrez shook up Kellogg’s product lines — bringing back the toys in kids’ cereal boxes that he loved as a child. By 2002, Kellogg surpassed General Mills to become the number one cereal-maker in the United States. (Gutierrez has always been unapologetically fluent in consumer culture. “Beyonce’s pregnancy, I was on that one. I know exactly who Lil Wayne is. . . . I’m up to date with the Kardashians. . . . Consumer research and consumer insights in marketing is everything.”)

His success in corporate America ultimately caught the attention of Bush, who nominated Gutierrez — a complete political outsider — to become commerce secretary in 2004.

“I wasn’t born in this country, so I don’t have to worry about moving up,” Gutierrez says. “I have a feeling there are so many people here who think they have a shot at being president. I didn’t have that pressure, so I just I came here. I said, ‘I ‘m going to make friends, I’m going to be a team player.’ ”

But he would soon be plunged into the most personal fight of his career.

Immigration and the GOP

Gutierrez, together with then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, was Bush’s top point person during his immigration overhaul push, deployed to lobby Congress and push the message to the public.

“You really saw him walking the halls, knocking on people’s doors,” recalls Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who hired Gutierrez’s son as an intern before the father had joined the administration. “He let you know what he was thinking. He didn’t use diplomatic gibberish.”

The White House similarly considered him a hands-on pragmatist. “He was a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy,” says Tevi Troy, Bush’s former deputy assistant for domestic policy.

Then, as now, Gutierrez laid out the economic case for immigration changes, stressing the need for the United States to modernize or risk falling behind its global competitors. “In terms of 21st-century immigration policy, Canada is eating our lunch. So is Australia,” he pronounces sharply. “People who don’t believe strongly in immigration, they’ve lost confidence in the greatness of America.”

Gutierrez becomes outwardly emotional when he talks about the need to empathize with the country’s immigrants — and the Republican Party’s abject failure to do so. “We. Just. Didn’t. Get. It,” he says, balling up his hands into fists, shaking them with every word, as if he were banging a table in front of him. “We didn’t see the world was changing. So many Republicans don’t know how to relate to immigrants.”

Gutierrez recalls how warmly Bush had embraced Hispanics — and him, personally — calling him “Carlitos” (or “Carlositos”) and always greeting him with a few Spanish words, however rudimentary. (“Cómo estás? Buenos dias!”) By contrast, Gutierrez cringed when he heard Mitt Romney say that immigrants should “self-deport” during the 2012 primary. “Governor Romney is not a malicious man, but he said things and did things that made immigrants feel like he hated them,” recalls Gutierrez, a Romney adviser who led Hispanic outreach for the campaign.

He’s been encouraged by the recent signs of movement, as both the Senate and the White House unveiled immigration proposals in quick succession. “It’s gone from ‘Why should we give these people legal status?’ to ‘What are we going to give them once you give them legal status?’ ” Gutierrez said, brightening as he recalls the private meeting he had with legislators in late January.

Detractors say it’s wishful thinking. “I don’t know how seeing those same faces on the same side of the issue makes any difference,” says Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, which seeks to restrict immigration. She also believes Gutierrez’s super PAC is another tool for “big-business, open-border types who want cheap labor.”

Others support his new super PAC but worry that he’s bent over backward to accommodate Republican orthodoxy. “At times, he’s given voice to this canard that all that [Republicans] have to do is change their tone,” says Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

Gutierrez does go out of his way to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt, asserting at every turn that it’s fierce political pressure, not ill will, that’s produced the recent wave of anti-immigration sentiment.

But Gutierrez knows that defense only goes so far. “ ‘Conservative’—that almost could imply that we want to conserve the past, “ he says, grimacing slightly as he shifts in his chair. “Not everything in our past is worth conserving.”