Gutiérrez: Democrats now the pro-immigrant party

Gutiérrez: Democrats now the pro-immigrant party
© Greg Nash

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of the nation’s staunchest proponents of providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, says he sees the election of President Trump as an opportunity. 

“Immigration now is seen in the context of a national issue, like reproductive rights are, like LGBT rights are, like environmental issues are, like raising the minimum wage,” Gutiérrez said in an interview with The Hill.

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“It took us awhile to get that standing in the hierarchy of causes. We have become a value in the Democratic Party that needs to be protected.”

That wasn’t always the case. 

Gutiérrez has been at the center of immigration reform fights since the 1990s. The darkest days for the cause, he said, were not under Republican presidents or majorities, but when immigration was pushed to the backburner under Democratic leadership.

“We win the House in 2007. And I remember going to [House Democratic leadership]. ‘We’re in the majority! Time for immigration reform,’ ” he said.

“And you know what they told me? ‘Can you go find about 50 Republicans to join you and then come back and talk to us?’ ”

Gutiérrez said Democratic leaders were concerned with maintaining their majority and sought to pad their numbers in order to allow some vulnerable members to vote against immigration reform.

“That’s not my challenge anymore. It is virtually uniform and universal, the stance — pro-immigrant in the Democratic Caucus,” he said.

While Trump’s aggressive stance on immigration and the executive order he issued last week have unified Democrats, Gutiérrez also credited the political growth of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) for bringing together the party on the issue.

“If anything, I know that I can leave tomorrow and there will be people who quickly fill my shoes,” Gutiérrez said.

The CHC has grown larger — it started the 115th Congress with 31 members — and louder over the past few elections. The caucus’s drive to grow its ranks has at times led to clashes with Democratic leadership, particularly in California, where general elections can pit same-party candidates against each other.

But the growth of the caucus has also provided a silver lining to the Democratic Party in an otherwise lackluster string of electoral results.

Gutiérrez said newer members of the CHC changed the way the caucus does business, helping it gain a stronger foothold in the party.

“[Rep. Tony] Cárdenas [D-Calif.], right? He’s come here and he’s created that BOLD PAC, and he’s raised more money than anybody else, and he’s really smart about using BOLD PAC and making sure that everybody knows that more money goes to non-Hispanic candidates than to Hispanic candidates,” Gutiérrez said.

The CHC’s growing numbers, tied to alliances with other minority caucuses and progressive Democrats, have also contributed to its success.

“Between 85 and 90 potential members here — that’s significant,” said CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.). “What can’t we do, is the question. We always work well together, but we have not ever had a president like this and an environment like this, and that changes the dynamic and the role of that body.”

And the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on an array of issues, starting with immigration, is giving immigration advocates a bigger platform in Democratic Party politics.

“It’s a very dangerous time for our immigrant community,” said Gutiérrez. “Trump has taken all the greatest hits of the xenophobes and the haters and put them in one big album.”

Gutiérrez said he is encouraged by the public outcry to Trump’s executive order on immigration, which gives Democrats political and policy momentum to fight the administration on the issue.

“I think that we can learn something about where we need to be today, and here’s what it is: We need to stand up for our values in a very clear, emphatic and consequential manner, and that means taking tough votes,” Gutiérrez said.

“I think that we’re ready to do it, and if we’re not, here’s the good thing: There’s a lot of people out there, millions of them, that are going to whipsaw us into shape.”