Hispanic Democrat says Obama is missing in action on immigration

A prominent Hispanic Democrat from Illinois is calling out President Obama for not playing a more active role in the immigration reform talks that have begun in Congress.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who campaigned for the president in swing states with large populations of Latino voters, said Obama is missing in action from the discussions that are taking place on Capitol Hill.

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“Who’s missing from these conversations is the president of the United States,” Gutierrez told The Hill. “When senators from both parties and members of the House are talking, when you have the Senate majority leader and Speaker Boehner both saying that this is an important priority. Who’s the one missing? The president.

“He’s saying good things. He needs to be an actor,” said Gutierrez, referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Gutierrez, the chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has criticized Obama for not doing more to pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first term. In April of 2010, he threatened to urge Latino voters to stay home during the midterm election if Democrats did not make a concerted effort to overhaul immigration laws.

This year, he put his misgivings about the president’s record aside to campaign for him around the country.

But now that the election is over, Gutierrez is working hard to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform isn’t bumped off the legislative agenda like it was in 2009 and 2010, when healthcare and Wall Street reform were given precedence.

Obama has identified immigration reform as a top priority for his second term, and talked about the need to move quickly on legislation during his first post-election press conference.

“My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration. And in fact, some conversations, I think, are already beginning to take place among senators and congressmen and my staff about what would this look like,” Obama told reporters at the press conference.

The White House said the president is devoting his time and attention to avoiding the “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year.

"While immigration reform is a priority for the president for early next year, his focus right now is on making sure that Congress passes a bill that would prevent 98 percent of American families from paying higher taxes next year, including 99 percent of Hispanic-American families," said a White House official.

Gutierrez wants to see the White House engage in more formal outreach on immigration with members of Congress. He says the president should convene a bipartisan summit on immigration reform, and suggested Camp David as a possible venue for negotiations.

He first floated that idea in an op-ed published in the Washington Post a few days after the election.

“We are ready to work with you and Republicans to make progress. We should treat this issue as a top priority and meet right away. Is Camp David available? How many people does it sleep?” he wrote.

Gutierrez said Friday that while a Camp David summit might not produce a comprehensive agreement, it would answer many questions about where policy is headed.

“My questions and the public questions won’t be all resolved but they’ll be greatly reduced,” he said.

Since the election, Gutierrez said, “we had this wonderful renewal of conversation” about immigration in Washington.

“Let’s not miss the opportunity,” he added.

Gutierrez met with Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) Wednesday to discuss their common desire to move immigration reform in 2013 and plans to meet with former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (Wis.) on the subject next week.

He also plans to sit down with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the leading Republicans on immigration reform in the upper chamber, before Christmas.

On the Senate side, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee, has resumed immigration reform discussions that broke off with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) two years ago.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led the effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Senate in 2006, has also begun meetings.

“We’re having discussions now,” said McCain. “I think there are a lot of senators who are very interested, including incoming senators like Jeff Flake [R-Ariz.].

“There’s significant motivation obviously to make progress on this issue,” he said.

It’s uncertain whether the Senate or the House will take the lead in moving immigration legislation.

Roy Beck, the founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that has opposed immigration reform proposals endorsed by Gutierrez and McCain, thinks the White House wants House Republicans to make the first move.

“I’m hearing the White House is saying it should start in the House. I can see why the White House wants the House to go first. They don’t want to lay out the details. They want the Republicans to lay it out first,” he said.

Beck compared the maneuvering to the debate over entitlement cuts in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. Obama and Boehner have each called on the other to provide a specific plan to reduce Medicare and Medicaid spending while declining to put forth a detailed blueprint of their own.

It’s far from certain that immigration reform legislation will ever get off the ground in Congress.

While Republicans risk a revolt from their base if they soften their stance on issues such as citizenship and border control, Obama could face a backlash as well.

Labor unions were divided over the 2007 immigration reform bill that failed in the Senate, and could break with Obama if he backs a plan that opens the door to millions of new immigrant workers at a time when the unemployment rate is 7.7 percent.