All summer long, Rep. Luis Gutierrez has been drawing sizable and enthusiastic crowds at immigration rallies nationwide. From California to Nevada to Florida, the congressman from Chicago is received like a rock star: People cheer when he enters the room; they pump their fists and stomp their feet. And when he’s finished speaking, they press forward to get close to him, tugging at his shirt and refusing to leave until he agrees to have his photo taken with them.
The contentious immigration reform debate in Washington has produced a steady stream of familiar faces — Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) or President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) — making familiar arguments. But among a huge segment of Latinos who get their news from Spanish-language media, Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is the face, the voice and the political force behind immigration reform, and has been for years.
He has been a ubiquitous presence on the national Spanish-language newscasts of Univision and Telemundo, mostly talking about the need for immigration reform. That history has given him outsize influence on the debate among some of the people most directly affected by the issue.
“There are only a few names that are familiar to most Hispanic families, and Luis Gutierrez is one of them,” said Jorge Ramos, who anchors Univision’s nightly newscast, “Noticiero Univision,” and its Sunday public affairs show, “Al Punto.” (Which means “To the Point.”)
Ramos said Gutierrez can draw a crowd “not just because he’s always on, but because he’s on the right side of history, or he’s on the side of Latinos and undocumented immigrants.”
Gutierrez has been pushing for changes in immigration law since winning his congressional seat in the early 1990s. His workshops on how to navigate the citizenship process regularly draw hundreds of constituents and he has been working for months on a bipartisan proposal as part of the House’s Group of Seven, which is expected to present a plan after lawmakers’ summer recess.
The bilingual nature of the immigration debate, and the political implications of the demographic boom in the number of Latino voters, has meant new visibility for Spanish-language media. Gutierrez says that both political parties are only now beginning to understand how Spanish-language media can shape public opinion.
“I see a lot of the non-Hispanic congressmen and they look at me and they say, ‘Oh, he had a press conference and a couple of ethnic TV camera crews showed up from the ethnic stations,’ ” Gutierrez said. “They’re not ethnic stations. These are stations that are reaching tens of millions of people in America and are providing many voters — and many more immigrants that are not voters yet — with the information they use to formulate their views on politicians, politics, who’s on their side and who’s against them.”
On a recent afternoon after an interview with The Washington Post, Gutierrez walked out of his office and found Lori Montenegro, Telemundo’s congressional correspondent, who wanted five minutes of his time.
“Real quick, Lori,” Douglas Rivlin, Gutierrez’s communications director, told her. “He’s already late for an interview with CNN en Español.”
After a five-minute exchange with Montenegro — including enough time for the obligatory “walk and talk” cutaway shots — Gutierrez darted off to the Cannon House Office Building for his CNN interview. Waiting by the CNN camera was Lourdes Meluza, Univision’s congressional correspondent, who also wanted to quiz him.
Similar packs of Spanish-language reporters seek out Gutierrez on the road as he attempts to press his immigration agenda by urging GOP colleagues who may not be naturally inclined to support immigration reform.
“I go to Republican districts, I raise the level of consciousness and awareness among the public and the news media in that congressman’s district,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “And I invite the Republican congressmen to join me, because from that sense of confidence and camaraderie that is created there, you can get the kinds of votes you need.”
In July he visited Republican congressional districts in California, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Texas and Washington and plans similar stops this month in the Midwest and in the Virginia districts of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Of the eight events Gutierrez held in July across the country, only one Republican, Rep. David Valadao (Calif.), agreed to join him. Regardless, Gutierrez insisted that the recently approved Senate immigration bill could easily pass the House, because dozens of House Republicans have privately told him they would vote for it.
“If they asked me today, go find 40 to 50 Republicans, I’d tell them I found them,” Gutierrez said. “I know where they’re at. They’re here. They’re present.”
In early July, Gutierrez shared a Las Vegas stage with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Reid was hoping that Gutierrez’s visit might put pressure on the state’s two Republican congressmen to support the Senate bill.
The crowd chanted “Harry! Harry! Harry!” when Reid took the stage, but the Senate leader was only the warm-up act, and many people stirred impatiently waiting for the headliner.
When Reid introduced Gutierrez, the crowd jumped to its feet and screamed. Switching between English and Spanish, he thanked Reid for passing the Senate immigration bill and demanded that Boehner do the same.
Directing his words at GOP colleagues in Washington, Gutierrez said that “si ustedes quieren votar en contra, voten en contra.” (“If you want to vote against the bills, vote against them.”) “Pero permiten que la mayoria de la Camara de Representantes afirmen derechos de los imigrantes aqui en este pais.” (“But allow for the majority of the House of Representatives to strengthen the rights of immigrants here in this country.”)
After the speech, Gutierrez was swarmed.
“Gracias. Thank you so much for inspiring us,” one young girl told him as she had her picture taken with him. Another man called him “un famoso congresista” while an older woman who used to live in Chicago told Gutierrez that she remembered when he served on the City Council and that she had been tracking his congressional career — on television.
“Are you going to be here tomorrow?” a younger man asked.
No, Gutierrez said, he had to leave quickly for the airport. But first he consented to quick interviews with reporters from the local affiliates of Univision and Telemundo.