Gutierrez, Tireless Champion of Obama's Immigration Action

Gutierrez, Tireless Champion of Obama's Immigration Action
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Nearly 200 people packed into an auditorium at a Washington, D.C., high school Thursday night to witness Rep. Luis Gutierrez do what he perhaps does best. The Illinois Democrat was there as a teacher and advocate, informing them about President Obama’s immigration executive actions, and the audience of mostly Latino Spanish speakers was eager to hear his message. Before he arrived – nearly a half-hour late thanks to an extended voting session in the House – the crowd chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, these deportations got to go” and “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can). When Gutierrez arrived, he received a long, enthusiastic standing ovation.

His speech, which he called the highlight of his week in D.C., focused both on the big picture of immigration reform, and the minutiae of Obama’s executive actions from last November, which would make deportation of convicted felons a priority but also provide a path for up to 5 million people already in the country to apply for temporary protected status.

Gutierrez talked about his parents’ immigration story and about the continuing effort for comprehensive immigration reform. He also told the crowd precisely who would qualify under the executive actions, and exactly what documents they would need and what steps they must take to be ready to apply – though a court injunction is currently stopping the government from moving forward as planned earlier this year.

This rally was the 20th on Gutierrez’s “Immigration Action National Tour,” which in the past four months has taken him to every corner of the country – last weekend he was in Washington state and Oregon, this weekend he will be in Miami. At these community events, Gutierrez (often joined by Democratic colleagues from the House and other politicians and activists) does exactly what he did Thursday night: talk about the big picture, and educate people on how the president’s announced changes will affect them personally.

“It’s a huge task and the more people know, the earlier they know it, the better prepared they will be to take advantage,” the 12-term congressman told RealClearPolitics. “It’s my responsibility not only to demand action here in Washington, D.C., but to ensure to the best of my ability that it is implemented as broadly and as widely and as generously as possible.”

Most of the events include volunteers, called “family defenders,” who are trained to help individuals figure out whether they qualify for these programs and exactly what documentation they need to prove their status. The programs are an expansion of DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, enacted in 2012 – and a similar program for the undocumented parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents. To qualify, however, they must have been in the country more than five years, pay taxes and complete a background check. They need ID cards, birth certificates and bills or other paperwork certifying how long they’ve been in the country, which are often difficult to track down.

The applications themselves aren’t going forward at this point, however, as a federal judge issued an injunction on the programs after attorneys general in Texas and more than 20 other states sued the federal government. That has thrown a wrench into Gutierrez’s plans to educate people about the programs, forcing him to also explain the court process and if and when the programs may begin.

Along with the lawsuit, Republicans in Congress have pushed back hard against the executive orders, which they see as unconstitutional and a serious breach of Obama’s power. Republicans attempted to defund the programs using the Department of Homeland Security funding bill earlier this year, which nearly led to a partial government shutdown. A majority of GOP senators also didn’t support Attorney General Loretta Lynch during her confirmation process earlier this year because of her assessment that Obama’s legal justification for the immigration actions was sound.

While Republicans have done everything they can to halt these actions, Gutierrez has been working tirelessly to spread the word about them. Colleagues say Gutierrez, who’s been in Congress for more than 20 years, is revered as an immigration champion within the Latino community. His presence at these events in their districts, they say, helps drum up excitement and support in many different ways. Rep. David Cicilline, who hosted the first event on Gutierrez’s national tour in Rhode Island in January, said Gutierrez brings “star power” with him.

“The success of the event was directly related to the presence of Luis Gutierrez. He is an icon in the Latino community and someone who has been on the forefront of enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” Cicilline said. “He’s recognized for his passion and for his unwavering support for this issue.”

Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, who hosted an event in Orlando in March, said that in addition to bringing energy and passion to the events, Gutierrez brings attention from local and national Latino press, which in turn translates into more mainstream press coverage. That gives him an opportunity to educate not just the Latinos in his district, Grayson said, but all of his constituents.

“We have thousands of people in Central Florida who are working below the minimum wage and dragging down labor standards,” Grayson said. “If we had immigration reform, that would no longer be the case. It gives me a chance in very practical terms to explain to the rest of the community, the non-Hispanic community, how the issue is important to them.”

Gutierrez understands the importance of the attention he creates, which is part of the reason he launched the national tour. And while his colleagues say he brings boundless enthusiasm to the events – which was clearly on display in D.C. Thursday night – Gutierrez says the energy is a two-way street.

“I’m human like anybody else and need to know that our message is still connecting and that people are still in the fight,” he said, adding, “They’re in the fight.”

Gutierrez’s efforts have also inspired other Democrats to hold similar events. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer hosted one in Maryland with Gutierrez last month. Earlier this week, Hoyer sent a memo to colleagues, a copy of which was obtained by RealClearPolitics, urging them to hold such gatherings in their districts during next week’s recess to educate constituents about the pending immigration actions.

At Thursday’s event, Gutierrez said he was pleased with the number of young people present, who were a significant portion of the nearly 200 attendees; many of them were connected to local Latino community or advocacy groups. During his speech, which was mostly in Spanish (earpieces providing translation were available), Gutierrez said he expects to see the first Latino president during his lifetime, and told the crowd that person could very well be in the room that night. After the event, he said having young people join the movement shows that there’s a bright future ahead.

Ultimately, while the tour helps galvanize support for reform, the main purpose is to educate people on how to personally take advantage of these programs. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who hosted a gathering with Gutierrez two weeks ago in New Mexico, said people who attend leave with a much better understanding of the details.

“I would say many of the participants had a general idea, but may not have been in a position to get everything that they needed and to have kind of a kit, a tool kit, to make sure you’re accessing every program and benefit that’s available to you,” Lujan Grisham said. “I do think they walk away with a very specific understanding and a set of instructions.”

Gutierrez, who won re-election last year with 78 percent of the vote, has long pushed for comprehensive immigration reform. When Obama announced his executive actions in November, Gutierrez scored a ride with the president on Air Force One to Nevada, where he gave a speech on the measures. Gutierrez said that, in a nutshell, he “told the president I’ve got your back.”

Since he has fought so hard for reform, Gutierrez said, he considers it his responsibility to make sure people take advantage of the programs available to them. For him, this has meant doing events across the country on at least eight weekends so far this year while most members of the House are back home with their families, hosting events in their own districts. Lujan Grisham called it “his calling.”

“There’s no time off for deportations,” Gutierrez said. “They continue to happen. There’s no time off for the threat of … dividing families up. There’ll be plenty of time for me to take time off.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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