Williams: Best Congress member 2011

It’s the end of the year and time to pick the top member of Congress for 2011.

The best of Congress is to be found far from the polarized, dysfunctional politics on Capitol Hill in a year when the American people have given Congress the lowest approval ratings in the history of polling.

That’s why my pick is Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

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Just last month Gutierrez led a delegation of House members thousands of miles from the Capitol to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Using the attention-grabbing power of a congressional delegation joining a protest in a mid-size American city, Gutierrez stirred memories of the Civil Rights Movement.

He forced national attention on Alabama’s draconian new immigration laws, modeled after the law passed in Arizona last year, which opens the door to harassment of low-income, working-class immigrants — legal and illegal — by allowing police to question any person about his or her immigration status.

The protest drew white, black, Hispanic, liberal and even some conservative supporters to 16th Street Baptist Church, the very same church that was bombed in 1963, killing four young black schoolgirls in the middle of the historic civil rights struggle.

The week before he was in Alabama, Gutierrez traveled to South Carolina, which has enacted its own version of Alabama and Arizona’s “Papers, Please” anti-immigrant law.

Gutierrez was there to draw attention to the Obama administration’s strict new deportation guidelines for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The congressman focused on the deportation case of an illegal immigrant, Gabino Sánchez, a family man with no criminal record.

Gutierrez asked ICE to review the case because it violates President Obama’s call for deportations to be focused on illegal immigrants with criminal records.

It is this ability to act strategically as well as to use his voice to speak for millions of voiceless immigrants living in America that makes the congressman’s work stand out this year. 

In 2011 alone, Gutierrez traveled to more than 20 cities urging the Obama administration to adjust policies that have seen a record number of immigrants deported. This aggressive new federal enforcement, combined with new state laws, has created rampant fear among immigrants, both legal and illegal, that the nation is in the grips of xenophobia.

For example, the Alabama law prohibits any illegal immigrant from receiving public services, including education. This is why many immigrant families, which have people who are legal and illegal, have pulled their children out of Alabama public schools, fearing intrusive investigations and deportation of loved ones.

“They described the fear and the hurt and the confusion and the students whose families had literally disappeared from the state overnight,” Gutierrez explained in Birmingham.

The Alabama law has also alarmed major employers such as farmers, who are making it clear that they need immigrant laborers to harvest crops. Major foreign businesses in Alabama, such as German-based Mercedes-Benz, are also upset. One of that company’s managers was arrested for failure to give police his immigration papers. The congressman is taking advantage of concerns among foreign-based employers to build opposition.

The same political smarts and appeal to conscience has led Gutierrez to be arrested in front of the Obama White House in a highly publicized, nonviolent call for attention to the sad fact that the United States, a nation of immigrants, is living through a sad era — from the Bush administration to the Obama administration — when the national government lacks the leadership to update its old and failed national immigration laws.

Gutierrez has protested the Obama administration’s failure to enact the DREAM Act — the immigration reform bill that would allow the children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they enlist in the military or enroll in college.

Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act this year, largely due to Republican obstructionism, but Gutierrez was one of the few lawmakers who correctly argued that Obama could sign an executive order halting the deportation of immigrant children who fit the DREAM Act criteria.

By acting on principle and speaking honestly to both Democrats and Republicans, Gutierrez is offering a clear contrast to the politicians who pander to mindless anti-immigrant anger with calls for electrified fences and talk of terror babies.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who forged a path through Birmingham during the civil rights struggle of his time, said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Frank Sharry, director of the advocacy group America’s Voice, said of Gutierrez back in 2010: “He’s as close as the Latino community has to a Martin Luther King figure.”

History will record Gutierrez as a molder of consensus on immigration in a difficult time. That is why he is my “Congressman of the Year.”

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.