Rep. Luis Gutiérrez: Now is the Time for Obama to Challenge Congress on Immigration Reform
As pressure grows for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform now that the government shutdown is over, we spend the hour with one of those leading the fight. Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois has been working to improve immigration policies since he won his congressional seat in the early 1990s. Most recently he helped author the bipartisan proposal for reform in the House. Earlier this month, Gutiérrez and seven other members of Congress were arrested protesting Washington’s failure on immigration. His arrest came as the number of undocumented immigrants deported under President Obama approaches two million — more than under any other president. "I want a president of the United States that signs a comprehensive immigration bill for two reasons: Number one, it stops the deportation and it brings justice, fairness, and equity to the immigrant community; and number two, I want Barack Obama to be known as the president that led us to 11 million people reaching freedom in this country," Gutiérrez says. The immigration protest was not the first time Gutiérrez has been arrested for civil disobedience. In 2000, he was arrested for protesting the U.S. military for using the inhabited Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing range. Gutiérrez has just written a memoir, "Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill." We talk about his time living in Puerto Rico, the night his house in Chicago was firebombed, his embrace of civil disobedience over the years, and his political mentor, Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Gutiérrez also talks about his next challenge: securing enough votes in the House to pass an immigration bill. "I create new friendships and new relationships in regards to comprehensive immigration reform, because let’s face it: Democrats didn’t do it in 2007 and 2008 when we were in the majority; Democrats didn’t do it in 2009 and 2010, we were in the majority. Now, we’ve got to do it," he says. "We have the majority in Senate. They’ve done their job, and I have to figure out a way to take our minority of 201 Democrats and get to 218 votes. There’s only one way you can do that, and that’s working with Republicans. We must put the lives of the immigrant community ahead of bipartisan politics."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As pressure grows for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform now that the government shutdown is over, we spend the hour with one of the leading—people leading that fight, Democratic Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois. He’s been working to improve immigration policies since he won his congressional seat in the early 1990s. Most recently, he helped author a bipartisan proposal for reform in the House.
The number of undocumented immigrants deported since President Obama took office is set to hit two million—more than under any other president. In the time since the Senate passed the immigration reform bill in July, the Department of Homeland Security has deported 100,000 people. During his weekly address, Obama called on the House to follow the Senate’s lead.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system. There’s already a broad coalition across America that’s behind this effort, from business leaders to faith leaders to law enforcement. It would grow our economy. It would secure our borders. The Senate has already passed a bill with strong bipartisan support. Now the House should, too. The majority of Americans think this is the right thing to do. It can and should get done by the end of this year.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, speaking on Sunday to Fox News, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida suggested the president’s handling of the government shutdown had undermined efforts at immigration reform.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: So I certainly think that immigration reform is a lot harder to achieve today than it was just three weeks ago, because of what’s happened here. Again, I think the House deserves the time and space to have their own ideas about how they want to move forward on this. Let’s see what they come up with. It could very well be much better than what the Senate has done so far.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about this issue and much more, we go to Houston to speak with Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois. He’s the chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, member of the bipartisan House Gang of Seven that has been working on a broad immigration reform bill.
Earlier this month, Congressmember Gutiérrez and seven other members of Congress were arrested protesting Washington’s failure on immigration. It’s not the first time Gutiérrez has been arrested for civil disobedience. In 2000, he was arrested for protesting the U.S. military for using the inhabited Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing range. He writes about his decades of activism, organizing and politics in his memoir—it’s just out this month—called Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.
Congressmember Gutiérrez, welcome to Democracy Now!
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Pleasure to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about your life and how you came to where you are, let’s talk about the latest issue, the issue of immigration. President Obama once again said he would take it up after the government reopened. But in the past, you’ve accused President Obama of not lifting a finger on immigration reform—you, from Chicago, from his city, as well.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, I think we missed a wonderful opportunity, the grand opportunity. We had a majority in the Senate, a majority in the House of Representatives and a freshly minted new president of the United States. I challenged Barack Obama at that time, because, as you recall, when he campaigned in 2008, he said he would make it a signature issue. He said he’d get it done and sign the bill, first year as president of the United States. And yet he did little or nothing to promote it. We gave up our majority in the House and weakened in the Senate, and two more years went by.
And then we suggested to the president, after he asked us—he asked me in the Oval Office. He said, "Luis, put your thinking cap on. Let’s figure out ways we can help immigrants now that we’re in the minority in the House." We did that. Eventually, the president did listen, and he issued the executive order, and there are 500,000 young immigrants across this country that no longer live in fear of deportation. They have work permits, Social Security cards, and they live among us. We want to make sure the next time they register with the government, they register on a more permanent basis.
I’m happy, delighted to hear—look, I think the president of the United States, when—he has a powerful sway. Obviously, all he has said was "We should do immigration reform again," and it captured the headlines across the country. That’s the kind of power to put a spotlight, the president of the United States. And so I’m happy and delighted that he’s doing it.
I would say that I hope that given the conflict we just went through in the Congress of the United States, a conflict in which I supported the president of the United States, because I think he did the right thing—well, he could not negotiate away what so many of us have fought for—that is, expansion of healthcare for American people. I’m happy and delighted he stood firm on that fight. But now it is time for him to challenge himself and to challenge the Congress, and specifically the House of Representatives. I believe he should call Speaker Boehner. I believe he should call the Republican leadership. I think he should engage them in conversations. And, I mean, that’s what Camp David is for. It’s a place for the president of the United States to sit down with leaders and accomplish legislative goals.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Luis, when you say that the president did finally agree to use his executive power to help the DREAMers in terms of deferred deportation, but even that step took quite a significant time, from, as I understand it, the time you first recommended it to him and the time he finally did it—I think more than a year. Even there, you had to go on a nationwide speaking tour around the country to drum up popular pressure on the White House. Could you talk about that, the importance of that popular pressure—
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on getting some movement on immigration reform?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Very important moment. So, in December of 2010, we passed the DREAMAct in the House of Representatives. It fails to reach a cloture vote in the Senate. It’s the 18th, 19th, 20th of December. President calls me and Bob Menendez, Nydia Velázquez and another group to come to the White House. It’s just before Christmans, two or three days before Christmas. And he says to us, "Luis, Congressman, we can’t get comprehensive immigration reform, but I want to work to protect the immigrant community during the next two years, until I’m re-elected president of the United States."
We put our thinking caps up, and we come up with the—and we come up with deferred action. We say to the president of the United States to use his discretion to make sure that certain immigrant groups aren’t deported from the United States. That is to say, "Use your discretion as president of the United States." So we get into a battle, and all of a sudden there’s actors and actresses, Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives, on the lawn of the White House, saying, "Well, the president doesn’t have any power. The Congress has to act. He cannot do anything individually."
The momentum continues to grow. The Hispanic Caucus challenges the president. The DREAMers across this country challenge the president. I remember at one point at National Council of La Raza the president is speaking to them, and the chant from the audience is, "Yes, you can, Mr. President!" Marco Rubio, in a move—opportunistic move, says, "Well, you know what? I want to do something for the DREAMers." We say to the president and the president’s staff, "If Marco Rubio is going to stop the deportation and he stops short of citizenship, we think we need to stop the deportations and protect the DREAMers. We think that that should be our basic goal at this particular point."
And then the president of the United States, four months before the election, signs an executive order. And today there are 500,000. I have never been more thankful to the president of the United States than when he took that action. But we should remember that for a year and a half, the president of the United States, in every venue that he could—that he created venues. He created one in El Paso, another one in Florida, in which he specifically said, "I cannot take any action." In the end, he took the action he said he did not have the ability to carry out. And we had a triumph, because of the consistent and persistent effort of our community.
AMY GOODMAN: And as Juan wrote in his column in the New York Daily News, that we’re about to pass this "horrid" landmark—I think that’s how you put it, Juan—of two million deportations under President Obama. Your thoughts on that, Congressman Gutiérrez?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, number one, look, President Barack Obama’s history, his tenure as president of the United States, is going to be marked by one of two things: being the president of the United States that’s deported more people than anyone else—I mean, at the rate he’s going, we don’t do comprehensive immigration reform, it has a devastating continuing effect on our community, and it means he will deport over three-and-a-half million people. Pretty soon, the banner headline is going be somewhere, that he’s reached the two million goal. I want a president of the United States that signs a comprehensive immigration bill, for two reasons. Number one, it stops the deportation, and it brings justice, and it brings fairness, and it brings equity to the immigrant community. And number two, secondly—not as important, but important—I want Barack Obama to be known as the president that led us to 11 million people reaching freedom in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez. When we come back from break, we’re going to go back 30 years to the night when a Molotov cocktail was thrown through his window. He opens his book, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, with that incident. And we’ll talk about his years of activism, from Chicago to Puerto Rico. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for the hour is Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, the Democratic congressman from Illinois, chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, member of the bipartisan House Gang of Seven that’s been working on a broad immigration reform bill. And his book is out this month; it’s his memoir called Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.
Congressmember Gutiérrez, talk about that night 30 years ago.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Thirty—so, it’s the first week of October. It’s 1984. It’s a nice night in Chicago. It’s probably about 60 degrees. It’s not yet cold. My wife and I come back with our daughter Omaira from having dinner with friends. I pick up the Chicago Tribune. I used to love to pick that paper up on Saturday nights, because it was so thick—right? so many different parts to it—and read it through the night. And that’s what I did, and I fell asleep on the couch near my living room window. At about 3:00 in the morning, a rock is thrown through the window of my living room, and a gallon of gasoline is thrown in, a huge Molotov cocktail. I still remember. I call it the ring of fire, because it was circular, and the flames were high and intense. And I raced up to get my daughter and my wife out of bed. I write about it because I think it’s important that people understand the context of violence, and that it still exists even in the 1980s in the city of Chicago.
It’s an important time for me, because I had—you know, when I was in high school and college, I was very politically active. And then I got married, fell in love and got married to Soraida. We had our wonderful daughter, Omaira. We bought our first home. And I used to watch public TV all of the time and watch This Old House, and I sanded my floors, and I cleaned up the varnish on the stairs. And, you know, I drywalled, I fixed up the house, I planted azaleas. You know, I caulked the bathroom. It was our first home. And that Molotov cocktail burned down our first home. But the important thing is that—I used to remember Robin Williams and Mork & Mindy and watching my favorite TV, and even on weekends having my six-pack of beer and playing dominoes with my friend.
Look, my life changed because there was a black man named Harold Washington. He was a congressman. He won the Democratic nomination in the spring of 1983, the Democratic nomination for mayor of the city of Chicago. His opponent, Epton, should have been one of those quiz footnotes for someone who will never win the million dollars: Who was the Republican nominee for mayor? But he doesn’t. He almost wins and becomes mayor of the city of Chicago. Harold Washington wins by a little over 1 percent of the vote. They said, "Epton, before it’s too late."
The precinct captains, from Congressman Dan Rostenkowski’s organization—now, let’s just think about that, 1983. Congressman Dan Rostenkowski isn’t just one other member of the House of Representatives, he’s the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He’s a counselor to a Democratic president. He is a titan. And yet, even as a Democrat, he is against Harold Washington. And everybody, it is clear that they are against Harold Washington because he’s a black man, and they don’t want a black man to be the mayor of the city of Chicago. And, yes, we live north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Chicago is still a city troubled by race and ethnic faults. And you know what? I support Harold Washington. I campaign for him. I run against Dan Rostenkowski in March of 1984. And in October of ’84, the Molotov cocktail comes through my house.
I just want to say, look, I don’t express this in the memoir, but my wife and I have forgiven. And so has my daughter Omaira. We’ve moved on in our lives. We hope the people that threw the bomb have found peace in their life. We certainly have.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Luis, you talk also—you mention that you ran against Rostenkowski. You confronted the Vrdolyak machine in Chicago. How has that formation, your political formation through the ward structure in Chicago and coming up through the ranks there, affected how you see politics in America?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Look, Juan, I’m going to be very honest with you. Before Harold Washington won the Democratic primary for mayor, I used to sit in my house. The precinct captain would come by, and he’d say, "Luis, Soraida, is the sewer running well?" And if it wasn’t, he’d fix it. If there were tree limbs that were encroaching my homes, he’d have the Forestry Department of the city of Chicago come and crop them. If I needed a garbage can with a nice lid to keep the rodents out, to put my garbage away, he provided one to me. I mean, the Democratic Party machine—I was very happy and very content and very—and so, they’d come by, and they’d ask me to vote straight-ticket Democrat and make sure that Soraida and I came out to vote and support the local City Council member for re-election. I have to tell you, I really didn’t have much of a problem doing that. They asked me to vote Democratic. They made sure that the city of Chicago provided the kinds of services that I paid property taxes in order to get.
And then they came to my house and asked me—these same people who had asked me on repeated occasions to support the Democratic Party, to vote straight Democrat—to put up a sign for Epton. That changed my life. It changed my life forever. I could not at that moment simply sit on the sidelines, being confronted, which was obviously a racist appeal to me and to my wife for our votes. Too many people, Juan, gave up too much for me to have the ability to vote. They burned their houses, and they put bombs in their churches. They were lynched, and they were murdered, so that we could have civil rights and voting rights in this nation. And so my life changed. I watched a lot fewer episodes of crazy Robin Williams on TV. I played less dominoes and had a—and fewer beers. But you know what? What changed and transformed for Soraida and I was our activism and being integrated.
So, the next year, after Harold Washington wins the general election—he’s now mayor of the city of Chicago—I decided to take on Dan Rostenkowski. Look, it was the only election I’ve ever lost. I’ve won over a dozen elections. I still remember the night, in 1984 in March, when I got 24 percent of the vote. I remember saying to my wife Soraida, "You know what? This is it. We’ll never do this again." I remember hearing the radio say, "It’s 7:00, and the polls have closed," and a tear coming down my eye—not a tear of sadness, one of happiness that I wouldn’t have to go out again. It is a very strong Democratic Party machine. All of my neighbors on my block had Dan Rostenkowski. These are people whose cars I had helped start in the cold of the winters, who sometimes I had shoveled their snow, whose children played with my daughter Omaira, and they all had my opponent. So I was happy.
You know what? I thought I’d never do it again, Juan, until I got back to the campaign office, and there were a hundred volunteers there, all excited, telling about their challenging of the machine and how the next time we were going to win. I’m happy to them that they had the courage and the vision to uplift me that night. You know what? They were right. Two years later, I got elected to the Chicago City Council.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, well, you not only got elected, but then yours was a decisive vote, wasn’t it, in terms of Harold Washington being able to govern?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, in Chicago, they called it "Beirut on the Lake," Juan. You’re very correct. They called it "Beirut on the Lake." The mayor did win. He is mayor of the city of Chicago. He controls the fifth floor. But when he nominates people to the Board of Education, when he nominates people to the Chicago Park District, to the city colleges, and the mayor has to make his appointees to all these boards and commissions, they are blocked by the Chicago City Council. Because of the 50 Chicago city aldermen—they were called the Vrdolyak 29—29—it was one Hispanic and 28 white aldermen—who said Mayor Washington will never get anything done during his first four years as—I was going to say president of the United States, because it almost reminds me of the Congress of the United States and the Republican Party today. They said he’d never get anything done. And then there was a special election.
And I think the public should understand, I spend much more time writing about my relationship and how it helped me develop than anything else in the book. Harold Washington was a mentor to me. He was the first mayor of the city of Chicago—he may have been the first black mayor of the city of Chicago, but he was the first mayor of the city of Chicago, for me, who gave me and thousands of other Latinos an opportunity. That’s what he did. He opened up the floodgates of opportunity for us. So, when I got elected in 1986—well, let me just—first of all, so there’s a—there’s a lawsuit. And Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and others sue the city of Chicago, saying, "Look, those 50 seats, it shouldn’t be 28 white aldermen and just one Latino; there should be more Latinos on the Chicago City Council." They challenged it, they go to federal court, we win. And so, I run. But the incredible thing is, when they asked Mayor Washington, they say, "Mayor, what are you going to do? City of Chicago is being sued," he’s going to say, "I’m going to tell the city’s lawyer to say we’re guilty, because we are." That’s the kind of mayor he was, a mayor that took the city of Chicago to court and says, "We’re guilty," and created opportunities for me.
When I get elected to the Chicago City Council, now there’s 25. It’s no longer the Vrdolyak 29. It’s 25 for Harold Washington and 25 members of the Vrdolyak group. And in the Chicago City Council, when there’s a tie of 25 to 25, guess who breaks the tie: the presiding officer, who happens to be the mayor of the city of Chicago. So I know the mayor had—when he presided over those Chicago City Council meetings, could never leave, because if there was ever a vote or a procedural matter, he had to be there to break the tie. But the floodgate opened. Members of the Board of Education, the Chicago Park, the city college, all the boards and commissions started to get approved. We passed a bond issue, a multimillion-dollar bond issue to fix and repair streets and begin housing and infrastructures and build libraries. We did—as long—as soon as he got the power, as soon as he got the 25 votes. And, you know, it was great being the 25th. We were all important, all 25 of us, but it was good being the last part of that puzzle that gave him the power to begin the change and transform the city of Chicago.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Gutiérrez, you then ran for Congress, and you won in 1992—of course, ultimately, Dan Rostenkowski, who you had first lost to, went to jail, a very powerful congressman, though he was pardoned by President Clinton. You go to Congress in 1992. But I wanted to go back to your parents, to where you grew up and why your family moved back to Puerto Rico while you were in high school.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure. You know, as—thank you, Amy. As I write in the memoir, as I think about it, first of all, look, think of my mom and dad. It’s 1952. They were in New York. What headlines would they be reading? Not the ones that Juan writes today. They’d be reading about Puerto Ricans coming from the tropical island of Puerto Rico, bringing tropical diseases. They’d be talking about Puerto Ricans being lazy, about all of them wanting to be on welfare, and being a new criminal element abounding in the city of Chicago. That’s what greeted my mom and dad, with their fifth- and sixth-grade education, without a coat on their back, without understanding the language. That’s what they confronted. And I see immigrants today confronting the same thing.
Well, my parents always had a dream, Amy, and their dream was to return to that beautiful island of Puerto Rico. And in 1969, they finally accomplished their dream. They buy their nice new French provincial furniture. They buy the new German rate-engineered record player and stereo. They buy the new Chevy Nova. They pack us all up, and we go back to Puerto Rico. And you know what? For them, it was returning home. As my mom would say in Spanish, "Este no es mi tierra," "This is not my land." She always wanted to return to her ancestral land, Puerto Rico. But as we were leaving, my sister and I, we sang to The Beatles’ "Yesterday," "All my troubles seem so far away," as we saw the city of Chicago just vanish in our rearview window, because my parents were returning to their land, but my sister and I, we were leaving the only land we ever knew: the city of Chicago and the United States of America.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then you suddenly had to go to school and learn Spanish.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: And, you know, Juan, I grew up in the quintessential Latino bilingual family, right? My parents spoke Spanish all of the time, and I spoke English to them. They understood my English, I understood their Spanish. And, you know, we got along just fine—until my mom and dad decided, of course, to return to the island of Puerto Rico. And I still remember when I went to register, matriculate in high school, which is your sophomore year there, and the professor, Professor Hernández, says, "Y ¿cómo tú te llamas?" "And what’s your name?" So I said Louis Guterrez, or Gutierrez or Gutierrez—any one of an infinite number of ways my name had been pronounced. I was always grateful that they didn’t change the spelling, and I really didn’t care that much and didn’t focus at the age of 15 about how people pronounce my name. But now it became important. And so, I said, "Louis Guterrez," and everybody in the classroom started laughing. My mom taught me that night my name: Luis Vicente Gutiérrez-Olmedo, Luis Vicente Gutiérrez-Olmedo.
And I returned the next day to the classroom thinking, "I now at least know my name. I’ve learned a few fundamental words in Spanish, my name," and walking up to a young girl sitting in the classrooom and saying, "Hola, mi nombre es Luis Vicente Gutiérrez-Olmedo," "My name is Luis Vicente Gutiérrez-Olmedo." And she turned around, and she raised her hand frantically. I didn’t know why she seemed so panicked and so scared. And the teacher says, "Yes, what is it?" She says, "Maestro, Mr. El Gringo, he’s bothering me." You know, it was amazing to me. I mean, I grew up in the city of Chicago, a city where we knew that there were certain beaches we didn’t go to, certain neighborhoods we didn’t walk into, certain swimming pools we didn’t attend, schools we didn’t, because Chicago was a segregated city. My whole life was about being Puerto Rican and living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. And now, all of a sudden, I thought I had returned home, to an island that was Puerto Rico, and yet I was called "the gringo." You know, I want to say that that was a very painful time. I always thought—in Spanish, right? Adolescencia , right? Adolescence, "dolor" and "science," that it was the "science of pain." It isn’t. But I certainly thought that those were the two words that made up that time in my life.
And eventually, members of the Independence Party in Puerto Rico embraced me. They said, "Ah, you’re part of our diaspora. You’ve returned home, and you’re from your pilgrimage. You’re simply an exile that has returned home." As the archbishop of San Juan, González, once said to me, "You’ve been Puerto Rican since the moment you were conceived in your mother’s womb." It was a wonderful time of acceptance. Yes, rejection, and at the same time acceptance. And I got involved in electoral politics in Puerto Rico. In 1972, of course in the United States and in Puerto Rico, they passed laws allowing people to vote at the age of 18, and I was ready to go and vote and change Puerto Rico for the better and fight for its independence.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you came back to Chicago for college, to Northeastern Illinois University, you were an independence activist, is that right? If you could explain to folks—
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: I was.
AMY GOODMAN: —what you mean by independence for Puerto Rico?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure. Well, I thought, look, there are three alternatives to the status of Puerto Rico. There’s statehood. There’s the current autonomous status, the commonwealth, which is a colonial status. I wish the autonomous would really develop it. And there’s independence. So, when I was in college, I used to have a button—Juan knows the button very well—from the Young Lords Organization, right? "Tengo Puerto Rico en mi corazón," "I have Puerto Rico in my heart." And I used to help edit, and we published the student Que Ondee Sola, "May It Wave Alone," the Union for Puerto Rican Students.
But we did more than simply speak about Puerto Rican independence. We made sure there were professors, Latino professors and Puerto Rican professors, for the students there. We made sure that everybody—ironically enough, as an activist for Puerto Rican independence, I understood very early on, in 1974, that if we were going to survive, kids not only had to learn about their culture and their history, they had to learn English. And I fought hard for Professor Harold Hild to create an English-language program, so that young students who had come from the inner city could not only just get into the university, not just survive, but to thrive and gain those English-language skills. I remember reading Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, in which she speaks about how she didn’t have the requisite skills when she got to college, how she hadn’t been—so, you know, it was a time. So, I want people to understand that as an independentista, I always thought in being self-sufficient and being independent, not only in the island’s independence, but your own personal independence. And you only truly create that independence if you have knowledge. And one of the basic fundamental points of knowledge in any society is the language and being able to have a command of it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez. And as we go to our break, you might want to sing along with the music, Luis. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: I have been, Amy. I have been.
AMY GOODMAN: "Yesterday," The Beatles, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, the song that the congressmember, Luis Gutiérrez, sang as he moved from Chicago to Puerto Rico. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for the hour is the first Latino elected from the Midwest to the U.S. Congress. Yes, he is Chicago Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, and he’s out this month with his memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Luis, I wanted to touch on something you said just as we went to break about your role as a Puerto Rican, and ask you: How is it there is only four, I think, Puerto Ricans in the House of Representatives—
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —voting members, and there are many more Mexican Americans? And how is it that a Puerto Rican U.S. citizen, born as a U.S. citizen, becomes the leading voice for immigration reform in the House of Representatives? I mean, obviously there are many Mexican Americans that are in Chicago, but you have become really the point person on this issue in the Congress.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, Juan, look, when I got to Congress back in 1992 and people started saying what were they going to prioritize—and people said they were going to prioritize education, they were going to prioritize the environment, they were going to prioritize different issues in the Congress of the United States, banking and housing issues—there wasn’t a lot of competition for immigration, obviously. So, I took it up, in the beginning, because when I kept going back home to Chicago, Juan, people kept asking me, "How do I become a citizen?" I had hundreds of thousands of newly minted green card holders, because in 1986—let’s remember, I arrive at a moment in the Congress, 1986, we passed what is really an amnesty, and three million people get their green cards. Well, right around '91, ’92, they become eligible to take those green cards and convert them to citizenship. And so I'm in a position to do that.
But moreover, Juan, look, look at my life experience. I go to Puerto Rico, and what do I do? I pay sugarcane cutters. I go to Puerto Rico, and I live in a part of the island that is intensely agricultural. I pick coffee beans. I know what it’s like to work that hard work in the agriculture, in an agricultural setting. But at the same time, I remember my mom and my dad and how hard they worked. So, I come from an experience in which I know how Puerto Ricans were treated when they arrived in New York City and arrived in this country. And so, I think it is very natural, given—look, as I wrote the memoir, it became clearer and clearer to me that the experiences I had, politically, individually, in terms of my family and my Puerto Rican roots and coming—Juan, you and I have heard this expression time and time again. It’s part of being Puerto Rican in the United States, right? How many times, when a conflict arises, isn’t a Puerto Rican simply told, "Why don’t you go back where you came from? Why don’t you go back where you came from?" And indeed, in the memoir, I relate a moment when I took my daughter—we had gone to the Vietnam Memorial, right? We had praised our Korean War veterans from the 65th Infantry for their courageous actions. We had spoken about all the contributions of Puerto Ricans to this country, the United States of America. And yet, when I returned to the Capitol that day, we were scorned by a security security aide, who simply told us, "Go back where you came from." So, it doesn’t matter sometimes, even rising to the position of member of the Congress of the United States, sometimes you’re still looked at as a foreigner.
And so, I just want to say to new people to this country, look, people gave up a lot so that I could have a voice and a role in the Congress of the United States. And maybe there was nobody there to stand up for my mom and dad when they reached the Barrio in New York City back in 1952, but there’s somebody today, as people arrive. And curious—I was just in New York this weekend, Juan. I’ve got to tell you, there were like more Mexican restaurants and taquerías and places and carnicería that were Mexican in El Barrio over on 110th and Lexington than Puerto Rican places. It’s almost as though there is a reason. The Barrio today is an immigrant community, not of Puerto Ricans, but of Mexican immigrants and from other parts of Latin America.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Gutiérrez, you don’t care about making friends when you are making a very important point. When you first came to Congress, when others are making nice, it was sort of like now, right? You had the wage freeze, and so federal workers had their wages frozen. And you felt congressmembers should abide by the same rules, because they were exempted. Can you talk about what you did then?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure. Look, it’s—I had been campaigning, I remember—it was wonderful—with Bill Clinton in 1992. He gets elected president. He comes in, he gives his first State of the Union address, right? And he talks about that we have a deficit and that we need to bring it under control. And one of the first things he says is that we’re going to freeze the wages of all federal employees. And I remember as the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate stood up in applause, right? And I said, "OK." The next morning, I asked my staff a simple question: "So, we’re all getting our salaries frozen?" And they said, "Yeah, everybody but you, because you’ll be exempt, because you’re special: You’re a member of Congress." So I called up some colleagues, and eight of us introduced a piece of legislation freezing the salaries of members of Congress. You cannot applaud on the House floor what you believe others should sacrifice, if you’re not ready to endure the same sacrifices. And "endure" is probably a hard word when you’re earning $130,000 back then.
So, look, I just tried to do what I believed was right and what I believed was consistent with a level playing field. I have done that in the Congress of the United States. Look, I don’t—you asked me, do I do those things today? Rarely, because today I’m making friends and building relationships to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. And I’m building those relationships. Most people don’t remember the Luis Gutiérrez of the pay freeze and stopping our special parking at National Airport or controlling how it is we got to send out free flyers and information to our constituents even days before an election. People don’t think about Luis in those contexts today, but I write about them in my memoir so that people can see the kind of arc of my time in the Congress of the United States.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Luis, I’d like to ask you about your relationship with another larger-than-life figure, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. You have not always had a good relationship with him, to say the least.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: No.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You backed one of his opponents when he ran for mayor.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about your relationship with Rahm Emanuel and what kind of job you think he’s doing as mayor of Chicago.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Yeah, you know, he’s—tough job, mayor of the city of Chicago. I was a city councilmember there, loved doing that job. So, Rahm Emanuel decides he’s going to run for mayor of the city of Chicago. I don’t support him; I support Gery Chico. One of the major issues that is used and brought up during the campaign, even for mayor of the city of Chicago, is what’s your record on immigration. Rahm didn’t have very much of a record. He had been chief of staff to Barack Obama. Barack Obama hadn’t done much his first two years as president of the United States, and the deportations were an issue.
He wins. He calls me up, and he says, "Luis, I want to make this the most immigrant-friendly city in America." Well, I can’t argue with that. That’s consistent with my goals and my priorities. And indeed he’s done many things. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the DREAMers, so after they get their work permits, they can go on and study in college. He has made sure that the city of Chicago does not cooperate with federal authorities, so that somebody has a traffic violation, they don’t wind up getting deported from the city of Chicago. He’s engaged. He and I have had citizenship workshop. So our relationship has evolved. He said to me, "I want to take an eraser and erase the chalkboard and start fresh with you." I love working with him on issues of immigration. And I have to tell you, I—one of the good things about having someone as astute and as smart and with the background is that I get to rely on him today about how best I use my energy and how best I use my time in Congress. And I get—we get to talk about how I strategize and what tactics I use to get comprehensive immigration reform. So he’s—he is wonderful to be able to call to get this done. He wants to get it done. He wants the city of Chicago to be free of deportations, too.
AMY GOODMAN: You do, though, today, Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, get arrested. And you’ve been arrested more than once protesting. Why do you choose that form of civil disobedience?
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, first of all, it encourages others to become involved, and it stops people from seeing you and distinguishing you as anything other than part of a broader movement. This last time—I mean, sometimes you do it because no one else will. Sometimes you just do it because no one else will. That’s not what happened a few weeks ago. I was honored to be with John Lewis and Raúl Grijalva and so many others of my colleagues. There were eight of us. And you could see the Capitol behind us, the place that we go to work. And there were hundreds of others that were arrested with us. Look, I think it’s important, because you bring energy to the community. Everywhere I go, people tell me, "Thank you." So, there is a—there is a connection with a broader movement.
Plus, it’s unfair, and it’s unjust. The deportations aren’t right. They destroy families. And sometimes it is appropriate and correct to deprive yourself of your own freedom and liberty to raise an issue so that others can be free and have liberty. Today is not like the civil rights movement of the '60s, right? It isn't like women, who had to stand outside the White House in 1917 and 1918 with Woodrow Wilson. Look, but there’s still—and plus, there’s a call back, right, to civil rights in the civil rights movement, when the black community protested. There is that connection. And so, we want to make that connection. This is the civil rights movement of today. We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got 11 million people who live in the shadows. They’re exploited.
So, when I sit down and talk to people, I clear the table, so I can see Paul Ryan not as budget chairman, not as somebody whose budget I have voted and will always vote against, but as a friend and an ally to free 11 million people. So, I create new friendships and new relationships in regards to comprehensive immigration reform, because, let’s face it, Democrats didn’t do it in 2007, 2008—we were in the majority. Democrats didn’t do it in 2009 and 2010—we were in the majority. Now we’ve got to do it. We have a majority in the Senate. They’ve done their job. And I have to figure out a way to take our minority of 201 Democrats and get to 218 votes. There’s only one way you can do that, and that’s working with Republicans. We must put the lives—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: —the lives of the immigrant community ahead of our partisan politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic congressman from Illinois.
REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: His memoir, just out this month, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.