In a Thursday speech, President Obama once again urged the House to join the Senate in passing comprehensive immigration reform, “an idea whose time has been around for years now.” Following Obama’s address, Salon spoke with Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), perhaps the House’s fiercest advocate for a path to citizenship. Gutiérrez rejected speculation that immigration reform is doomed, told Salon that he’d “seen conditions that I thought would never be agreed to, agreed to” by Senate Democrats, and said the president “has the responsibility to act” to stop deportations if the U.S. Congress won’t. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Lots of observers look at this Congress and say, given the pressure on John Boehner from the right, that there’s no chance of passing comprehensive immigration reform in this session. Why do you disagree?
I disagree with it because even during the very contentious and oftentimes nasty debate over the budget and the debt ceiling, as contentious as that got, the dialogue continued between Democrats and Republicans trying to find a play. Now — and so I believe that that’s going to eventually bear fruit, and that we’re going to be able to move forward.
Look, when the “Gang of Eight” failed in the House of Representatives, it should not have been a surprise. It was not fully supported by Republican leadership or Democratic leadership. It was a group of eight people … so in its demise, I mean we hear that [GOP House Judiciary Chair] Goodlatte has announced and made pronouncement that he will bring a bill, he will bring several bills. Now, the ones that have been produced thus far can’t get Democratic support, but they are all bills. The president, I am thankful, has been smart enough and politically strategic enough to understand that it’s OK if they do it — he said it’s OK you want to do it piecemeal, it’s OK as long as in the end we have a complete project.
And so I think that those avenues are going to allow us — the fact that they’re going to take these proposals piece by piece, the fact that they want — the signals are that they want to get there — may very well allow us to reach a point where we can come together.
Are there conditions in your mind for what kind of process or what kind of content would be acceptable in —
Well look, we have, we have – I mean, our negotiating position now is the Senate negotiating position, and that’s the Democratic House negotiating position. So our negotiating position is that immigrants don’t have to have access to healthcare. The Senate proposal says that they can’t join Obamacare with subsidies. Our position is that they have to pay fines, fines with penalties. The Democratic position is that they can’t get any means-tested programs for the first ten years. Our position is that no Social Security ... all of the billions of dollars they may have contributed before legalization are forfeited … Our position is 20,000 more border patrol agents … the de facto militarization of the border between the US and Mexico. Our position is no more diversity visas. Our position is that the sibling category in ten years will cease to exist. You won’t be able to bring your brother or sister as an American citizen. …
So given that, my hope would be that there would be grounds — so concessions have been made around immigration. So when you ask me, you know, what are my conditions, well my conditions were that none of those things happened. That’s how we started.
So why don’t we see where we go. Because I’ve already seen conditions that I thought would never be agreed to, agreed to. And that’s the House position, of House Democrats, 180-plus strong: the Senate proposal — all of the things I’ve just said to you.
Now I want to make this abundantly clear … I’d vote for that bill in a heartbeat. I’d vote for that bill. Because it’s a product of compromise between Republicans and Democrats — in an institution, the Senate, that Democrats control 54 out of 100. And that’s a product — so when people ask me, I go: I don’t want to say what I want — I want to say is, I am working towards a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million. National Council of La Raza, and the Congressional Budget Office, say the Senate bill will leave 3 of the 11 million out — not out of citizenship, even out of a pathway to legalization.
You know I think we need to — I think we need to simply talk, discuss, and negotiate with one another to free them from the fear and terror of deportation. One thousand and ten people are deported every day. And so I’m very happy that the president spoke up today, and I think he put a spotlight on the issue in a wonderful way today. But let’s — his administration will soon reach 2 million people deported since he got sworn in as President of the United States. So when people ask me what are the conditions, should the condition be that the 2 million get to come back that qualify? I don’t hear anybody saying that.
So let’s just move forward on the issue, understanding that I want to legalize them, I want them to live in peace and harmony with us, I want us to have a pathway to citizenship … I want fairness and justice. And what fairness and justice actually means at the end I will, I will – I will confine it to what I’ve just said to you … I want to legalize those who want to work. I want fairness and justice for them. I want a pathway to citizenship.
Are you willing to vote for something that is even more punitive or even more restrictive than what the Senate has passed?
I don’t know what’s going to come out of the House of Representatives. But I will tell you this: I’m not going to speculate on whether it’s going to be more punitive. Here’s what I’m going to tell you: that the Senate proposal I’ve already described, some of the punitive measures in the Senate proposal — and that’s a proposal in which Democrats are in charge of the judiciary, are in charge of the calendar, and are in the majority.
Do you think that the Democrats in the Senate negotiated in the right way in crafting that bill?
So, I’m not going to criticize those in the Senate. They did the best they could. They did the best they could. And they crafted a product that I’d vote for today. I’m just raising these issues so that people understand that we have to get away from the simplicity, right? This is a very complex issue, in which there’s going to have to be a lot of give or take, or the Obama administration will simply continue to deport 1,100 people a day. Look, since the Senate announced [its bill], 100,000 people have been deported. One hundred thousand people. Tens of thousands of American children have been left without a mom or a dad. Wow. It’s incredible, the devastating effect of that broken immigration system. So I want to get them legalized. I want to get them on the books. I want to give them fairness. I want to integrate them into the fabric of our society. And I want them to actually really become citizens of the United States. And that’s going to be our negotiating position.
Do you believe the president should issue, as some groups have called for, a “ceasefire” on deportations — should halt deportations?
I think the president of the United States should listen to all quarters in this debate. And I think that those who call on the president of the United States to re-evaluate his actions on the dreamers and expand it — I think that’s something the president of the United States should definitely look at, and begin to evaluate how he brings that about. I think he should think about that. I think that is something the president of the United States should definitely look at.
And I think that those quarters of the immigration movement that are calling on the president to do that are absolutely right. There are devastating effects if the Congress of the United States cannot enact comprehensive immigration reform - then the President of the United States has the responsibility to act to defend those immigrants which he says he wants to provide safety and justice for.