Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) found himself in a familiar place on Monday, furious his fellow Democrats were voting to fund the government without guaranteeing protections for young immigrants.
“They caved. They blinked,” Gutierrez said. “Democrats are still not willing to go to the mat to allow people in my community to live in our country legally.”
On Monday, Senate negotiators ended the three-day government shutdown by agreeing to a government funding deal that extends spending at current levels for three weeks and funds the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years.
But progressives like Gutierrez were furious about what was not part of the agreement: a guarantee that undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children would not be deported. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would hold a Senate vote on legislation regarding the immigrants, but even a successful Senate vote could be nullified by the GOP-run House or President Trump.
Gutierrez's frustration with his colleagues reflects a broader struggle within the Democratic Party that promises to play out repeatedly between now and 2020, as the party's centrist and progressive wings clash over focus, tactics and ideology — with centrists looking for incremental gains that appeal to moderate voters, and progressives pushing for bold reforms that excite the party's base.
These debates have intensified since the 2016 election, which reduced Democrats to one of their weakest positions in decades. They span a range of issues that have emerged repeatedly this Congress and in Democratic primaries. On health care, progressives want the party to embrace a single-payer system that would fund free insurance to everyone in the country, and moderates counter Democrats should instead focusing on expanding the existing Affordable Care Act. On the minimum wage, progressives demand the party adopt the line of $15 an hour, which the more moderate faction of the party says would hurt employers by saddling them with new costs. On education, Democrats are divided over whether to embrace a free college tuition plan similar to the one Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) called for during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.
Gutierrez's intraparty struggle on immigration reflects both the success and the limits the progressive faction has had in steering the party in their direction. In September, Trump decided to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, started under President Barack Obama, which offered temporary legal status to about 700,000 young undocumented immigrants — widely known as “dreamers” — brought to the United States as children.
The whole Democratic caucus and many prominent Republicans agree the dreamers should be allowed to stay. But Gutierrez quickly helped forge the left flank of Democrats' response by demanding the party withhold support for funding the government, even if that meant a shutdown, unless they were ensured protection.
For months, the wider Democratic caucus resisted adopting that strategy. But then it looked last week as though it might work, as 44 Senate Democrats withheld their votes from a spending deal and allowed the federal government to shutter. Then, just as quickly, the party appeared to flip, as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 32 other Senate Democrats voted to fund the government despite no clear guarantee the dreamers would be protected.
(Democratic leaders say that the deal preserves their leverage for a future fight over the dreamers and secured a new commitment from McConnell, and that funding the Children's Health Insurance Program weakens the GOP's future bargaining position. Citing internal polling, they also said voters did not appear to want a government shutdown over immigration.)
Colleagues note that the shutdown shows how Gutierrez's position — once viewed by his colleagues as quixotic and fringe — was adopted by the mainstream of the Democratic Party within just a few months.
“I think a lot of the people here thought, ‘Oh, that’s just Gutierrez’s pet issue — the thing only he was talking about,’ ” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said. “Now it’s clear he was just way ahead of his time.”
Affectionately nicknamed “the little fighting rooster” (“El Gallito”) for his blunt broadsides, Gutierrez — a 13-term congressman and potential 2020 presidential candidate — used his near-constant presence in Spanish-language media to help yank the Democratic Party toward brinkmanship over the dreamers.
“He’s pushed mainstream politicians to a very uncomfortable place. I’m completely surprised to listen to mainstream Democrats and even Republicans today in Congress debating the dreamers, because it was an impossible task to get them there,” said Jorge Ramos, a Mexican American news anchor and outspoken critic of Trump's immigration policies. “He is, no question, the leader on immigration, and especially undocumented immigrants. No one — no one else — in either the House or Senate has taken the risks he’s taken.”
Gutierrez was not the only one to push Democrats to adopt a harder line to protect the dreamers. Khanna pointed out that Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) were also at the forefront of the fight, as well as fellow Congressional Hispanic Caucus members Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). And everyone on the left notes that it's young Hispanic activists, rather than any politician, who formed the tip of the dreamers' spear.
But some progressive organizers say Gutierrez was almost certainly the most effective ally in Congress, and that his work shows a model for how the left can move the Democratic Party. “He is the reason the broader progressive establishment is where it is today on immigration policy,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, a liberal advocacy network. “He was in the room with us since day one, when nobody else wanted this fight.”
Intraparty tensions emerged almost immediately after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Schumer, and Trump reached a deal this September to fund the government that did not address the dreamers. Gutierrez then let his criticism fly at a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus.
“I looked at Pelosi and I said, ‘You just drove a wedge between this caucus and the immigrant community,' ” Gutierrez said.
The gap would close. Gutierrez began winning over allies in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to the position that Democrats should reject any funding deal that did not protect the dreamers. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus began coming on board, as did prominent 2020 presidential candidates in the Senate such as Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Gutierrez held private meetings with House Democrats, while also denouncing the party’s unwillingness to shut down the government in rallies on the Capitol steps.
“He just went up to the mic and said, ‘I’m not going to vote for any [expletive] spending bill' that does not protect dreamers,” said Adrian Reyna, of the young immigrants group United We Dream. “And we all said, ‘Woah,’ because that’s exactly what we wanted to hear. That energy broke the ice for a lot of Democrats in the House.”
On Dec. 7, only eight Senate Democrats voted against a short-term spending deal that left out the dreamers. By Dec. 21, 30 Senate Democrats rejected a similar short-term extension.
Last week, 44 Senate Democrats voted against the deal.
“In caucuses and in meetings, you can tell it’s personal to him — deeply personal. He was respectful but he’d always push the caucus to understand his position,” said Nadeam Elshami, who served as Pelosi’s chief of staff.
To the right, adopting Gutierrez’s tactics looks like another sign of the Democratic Party’s movement to the left. “Democrats have not had to negotiate in Illinois for decades — they’ve learned to be the party of no, no, no, no,” said Aaron Del Mar, former chair of the Cook County GOP. “That’s the playbook: How do you generate more revenue for fundraising and a greater name ID?”
Gutierrez announced last November that he will retire after this session, citing the need to help rebuild Puerto Rico. But Gutierrez — who was repeatedly arrested as a congressman in acts of civil disobedience outside the White House protesting deportations under Obama — has also admitted he is entertaining the idea of running for president in 2020, telling Politico that he wants to “build something national” after his departure.
“I’ve been arrested with him, I’ve rallied with him, and I’ve watched him make the case to colleagues behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, when all the cameras are off. He’s done as much for the cause as anyone in America, and he has made our nation better for it,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), of the Democrats' progressive caucus.
Jayapal, another progressive, stressed that the larger progressive movement — not just Gutierrez or the dreamers — had successfully converted the Democrats to go to the mat for the dreamers, even if temporarily. She argued that they have begun convincing the whole party that doing so is in their electoral interest.
“If you get young people, folks of color and women to believe the Democratic Party actually stands for something, they will come out and vote,” she said. “Now there’s a political imperative to do something about this.”