Interviewing U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, arguably the most vocal immigration reform advocate in the U.S. Congress, is a lively experience. As he pounds on the table, enacts and rehearses arguments, pulls out his credit cards to make a point, gesticulates, and at times yells loudly, Gutierrez' passion for the cause of immigrants is on full display.
Halfway through the interview the congressman excuses himself to give a three-minute statement to Univision on a new development in a high-profile immigration case he has been championing.
Although a committed Democrat, Gutierrez doesn't hesitate to confront his own party's president when he thinks Barack Obama is not living up to his promises. In fact, over the past two years Gutierrez was arrested twice--in May 2010 and July 2011--while protesting outside the White House.
His passion is fueled by his desire to help bring about justice for the Latino and immigrant communities. But while his many legislative and other initiatives on their behalf have influenced the public debate, both comprehensive immigration reform and the more limited DREAM Act remain elusive goals.
Still, says Gutierrrez, "I feel it's irresponsible not to be optimistic. The other side wants me to be pessimistic, but if I wake up pessimistic in the morning, do you think I'm going to get as much done?"
Why is immigration a moral issue?
For me it comes down to something fundamental, to my basic values as a Catholic: The state should never destroy and separate what God has brought together.
I went through something of a Catholic awakening in my life when I was getting married. We didn't just go down to City Hall; we went to church, and we took the sacramental preparation very seriously. It meant something to us to go that day before God, in our church, to share our vows. That's where the sacrament was at, not at some government building.
The tradition of our Catholic community is to bring families together and to want to create an extension of our already wonderful and beautiful family.
Our immigration policies--especially our deportations--are immoral because they are tearing families apart.
Why do so many Americans--including Catholics--miss that moral dimension of immigration?
Unfortunately, to many Americans immigrants are just a bunch of "illegals." That's the term they like to use because illegal dehumanizes you, it takes away your spirit. It makes you a thing. It makes you into something bad.
Illegal is a word we use for a bank robber, a drug dealer, a speeder, a drunk driver. When you think of an "illegal," you don't want to be next to that person. Yet these "illegals" sit with me in the same pews in the church that I go to on Sunday. Their children play with my children. We shop at the same stores. We intermarry.
In those situations I can no longer see you as "illegal." I'll see you in the broadest spirit of who you are. I'll see you as a child of God. I'll see your humanity.
What else is implied by the word illegal?
A lot of people think of "illegals" as free-loaders. They don't see them in meatpacking plants; they don't see them harvesting the potatoes that we eat or picking the lettuce and tomatoes for our salads. They don't see them in the orchard groves of Florida picking the oranges or in Oregon or Washington picking the apples.
So if you're at a nice restaurant and see Jose the dishwasher back there, if you really thought he was engaged in a criminal action, how come you aren't dialing 911? How come you just sit there and eat your meal? You know that more than likely Jose doesn't have papers, but you don't give a hoot because you're just happy to get your plate.
If you walk through the more affluent neighborhoods of Chicago early in the morning, you'll see immigrant women arriving at people's homes. What do we entrust them with? …