By Russell Berman and Bob Cusack - 04/20/10 10:00 AM EDT
A congressman from the president’s home state is threatening that he will urge Latino voters to stay home this November if the Democratic Party does not make a concerted effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) is arguably President Barack Obama’s biggest Democratic critic in Congress. And he’s not fond of Obama’s top advisers at the White House, either.
Some Democrats have felt little urgency in pursuing the controversial issue, partly because they see no risk that Hispanic voters will bolt the party for the GOP. But Gutierrez says they are missing the real political consequence of inaction.
“We can stay home,” Gutierrez said in an interview with The Hill. “We can say, ‘You know what? There is a third option: We can refuse to participate.’ ”
For Gutierrez, a former cab driver first elected to represent Chicago in 1992, the shift from close Obama ally to ornery critic has been stark. The lawmaker was one of the former Illinois senator’s earliest campaign supporters, and — as Gutierrez is quick to note — he stuck by Obama even as many Hispanic leaders rallied around Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
When Gutierrez talks about his old Chicago neighbor, he speaks of “anger, disillusionment, dissatisfaction” and “betrayal.” He says Obama has failed to keep his campaign commitment to immigration reform, and he decries what he calls an “enforcement-only” policy in which the administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than in the final year of the George W. Bush administration.
Gutierrez says Latinos have lost patience with Obama, and he predicts an “escalation” of activism aimed at forcing immigration reform to the fore of the party agenda.
“We’re going to make it uncomfortable for the Democratic Party,” Gutierrez said, adding that immigration advocates would step up the pressure by drawing lessons from the movements for civil rights and women’s suffrage. “There’ll probably be civil disobedience. There will probably be a number of different actions. What we have to do is we have to break through this wall of silence, because we’re invisible.”
Gutierrez is not alone. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a CHC member who serves in the Democratic leadership, said earlier this month that Latinos view the president with “suspicion” for failing to meet expectations.
Firing salvos is nothing new for Gutierrez, a lawmaker known for his singular and strident advocacy of the immigration cause. In 2008, he compared Border Patrol agents to the “Gestapo.” More recently, he made a high-profile threat to vote against the healthcare overhaul at its most critical stage.
Few in Washington believed he would vote no, but Gutierrez managed to wrangle a White House meeting and a public nudge from Obama in support of the comprehensive immigration blueprint being developed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“Would we have liked him to have done more? Yes,” Gutierrez said, acknowledging that Obama’s statement reiterating his support for comprehensive immigration reform “wasn’t the most enthusiastic press release.”
“It’s incremental,” he said. “Before you run, you walk.”
Among his grievances with Obama is the president’s shift in rhetoric. When Obama campaigned, Gutierrez said, he used the phrase “undocumented workers.” When he addressed Congress on healthcare last September, the president referred to “illegal immigrants” in insisting that they would not be covered under the administration’s plan.
“You went from a humanizing definition of the community to a criminalizing definition of the community,” Gutierrez said.
The final straw for immigration advocates came in January, the outspoken legislator said, when Obama barely mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address.
“He said it with so little enthusiasm, and so little commitment, that they didn’t believe him,” Gutierrez said, drawing a direct line between that speech and a large rally of immigration advocates in Washington last month that happened to coincide with the final House vote on healthcare.
“If you only understood how devastating it was to our sense of hope and our sense of commitment of this president,” he said.
Gutierrez, who has not faced a serious electoral challenge since his first term, said he doesn’t lambaste the administration because he likes to.
“It’s very hard. I don’t want you to think that it’s easy,” he said. “I don’t want to pile on. It’s just he’s got to get this done.”
Gutierrez noted that Obama initially promised on the campaign trail that he would pursue immigration reform in 2009, then backtracked. And he vows he will hold the president accountable.
He said, “I meet women who are being raped by their employers. I meet children who the government has come early in the morning and taken their dads. I meet someone dying from cancer, an American citizen, who says … ‘Luis, can I die knowing that the mother of my children is going to raise [them]?’ I can’t give him that, because there’s nothing in the law.”
Despite his criticism of Obama, Gutierrez said he is more optimistic about the chances for progress on immigration.
The president transformed from “Professor Barack Obama” to “Lyndon Johnson Barack Obama” during the healthcare debate, he said.
“I don’t think I even co-sponsored it. Why did they invite me?” Gutierrez wondered, before answering his own question. “After he signed the bill, [Obama] came up to me, he said, ‘Hey Luis, I appreciate your support. We’re going to work on comprehensive immigration reform.’ ”
Gutierrez also pointed to recent comments by Michelle Obama extolling the contributions of immigrants in the U.S. The first lady on Sunday said immigration reform was “still on the top” of the Obama agenda.
When it comes to a legislative and political path to enacting immigration reform in an election year, Gutierrez is less specific. He grudgingly accepts the consensus opinion that the legislation must start in the Senate, but he makes sure to point out that even there, immigration gets short shrift.
“Every other basic fundamental issue we start in the House,” he said.
The broader journey for a bill that will create a path to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants has been years in the making.
Gutierrez was a lead co-sponsor, along with Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), of the sweeping bill that passed the Senate in 2006 before stalling amid a conservative revolt in 2007. He nearly quit the House after the effort failed in 2007, but he changed his mind and decided to stay and pursue what has become the cause of his career.
“This has kept me in Congress,” the 56-year-old lawmaker said.
The House Democrat is not shy in blasting Obama’s closest advisers. Asserting that he is not culpable for what the administration does or does not do, Gutierrez said, “I’m not at the White House. Rahm [Emanuel] is there. [David] Axelrod’s there. And I don’t know that they’re giving him the best advice.”
Gutierrez scoffs when it is pointed out that Obama nominated the first Latina to the Supreme Court and pushed for immigration reform-friendly provisions in the 2009 children’s healthcare insurance law.
“We’re supposed to applaud because they did the right thing? Because they finally acted as Democrats? So big deal. What did they do that was so extraordinary? Oh, a Latina’s on the Supreme Court? About time!”
The White House did not comment for this article.
Gutierrez’s allies in Congress say the congressman’s outbursts have a purpose.
“There’s a difference between being an enemy and a forceful advocate,” Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said, referring to Gutierrez’s criticism of Obama.
Part of his role as a leader on immigration, Clarke said, was to make sure there’s a spotlight on the issue.
“He’s a pretty smart pol,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a leader on immigration in the Irish-American community. Crowley said Gutierrez’s credibility stems from his ability to build unlikely coalitions on immigration and because he is well-liked in the Democratic Caucus.
As for Obama, lawmakers are quick to note a relationship between the two men that goes back years. “Luis is very strategic and he’s very smart, and so is the president,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said.
Gutierrez, Honda said, “holds no animosity. The heat is about the issue. It’s not about personalities.”
A video of The Hill’s interview with Gutierrez can be viewed here.