Keeping Obama to His Word

Article excerpt

Byline: Arian Campo-Flores

Rep. Luis Gutierrez is a hero to many Hispanics. He says he won't change his methods, no matter who gets irritated.

Once you've made a promise to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, it's a bad idea to break it. Because if you do, he'll call you on it, and then he'll broadcast your perfidy incessantly, with every megaphone he can get his hands on, to anyone who will listen. Just ask President Barack Obama, who failed to keep his word on tackling immigration reform in his first year in office. Though the two Chicago Democrats were once close, Gutierrez has spent much of the past two years badgering the president on the issue. "He was clear in his commitment to me," says Gutierrez. And yet "everything has been enforcement, enforcement, enforcement"--more deportations of undocumented immigrants, more troops |on the border. "How," asks Gutierrez, "is this different from what George W. Bush did?"

Gutierrez, 56, is the most passionate, tireless, and nettlesome voice in Congress on immigration matters. He's a constant presence at rallies and on TV, defending the undocumented and railing against xenophobia. It's no surprise that a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey ranked him the second-most-important Latino leader in the country, after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "He's as close as the Latino community has to a Martin Luther King figure," says Frank Sharry, founder of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice. Yet Gutierrez's tactics are controversial. While many admire his tenacity and credit him with keeping immigration reform alive, others, including members of the Obama administration, believe his confrontational style can be counterproductive. He sees things more simply. "I have only one loyalty," he says, "and that's to the immigrant community."

Gutierrez has now embarked on his latest campaign: to secure quick passage of the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented youths who attend college or serve in the military. With a Republican takeover of the House imminent, the lame-duck session of Congress offers the last chance (for a while, at least) to get it done. It won't be easy, given the noxious atmosphere in Washington. Yet Gutierrez has already launched a nationwide tour of churches to rally immigrants and their supporters, and has begun rounding up votes in the House. Two weeks ago, he and a few other lawmakers met with Obama at the White House. "We want you to put everything you can behind this," he says they told the president. Obama agreed to help--by, among other things, placing personal calls to wavering lawmakers.

Gutierrez's first stop on his church tour was St. Brigid's in Brooklyn a week ago. Joined by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and other elected officials, he was received with adulation by the hundreds of people packed in the pews. His speeches at events like these--delivered in a stentorian voice, despite his slight physique--resemble revivalist sermons. He started off softly, then crescendoed to ear-splitting decibels, jabbing his index finger toward the heavens. "The other side is waiting for us to get tired!" Gutierrez thundered in Spanish. "Is anyone here tired?" "No!" the audience roared back.

The son of Puerto Rican parents, Gutierrez has long had a fiery streak. He was a student leader and community organizer before entering politics, first as an alderman and then a congressman representing a majority-Latino district. Though he's about to start his 10th term, Gutierrez's activist roots still show. Within weeks of Obama's taking office, he set off on a 30-city tour to highlight the stories of families split apart by deportations and to pressure the administration to take on immigration reform. One year later, with things at a standstill, Gutierrez turned more adversarial. He said Hispanics were becoming angry and disillusioned, and were losing patience with the president. In May of this year, he was arrested at an immigration protest in front of the White House. …