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Brown: Gutierrez crossing country to push immigration reform

Updated: September 23, 2013 2:49PM

When I caught up with him Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Luis Gutierrez said he was sitting on the front porch of his Northwest Side home enjoying the milder-than-predicted weather.

Catching up with him isn’t just a figure of speech these days. By Sunday, Gutierrez will be in Minneapolis for a town hall meeting with fellow Democratic congressman Keith Ellison. On Monday, it’s off to Virginia for a pair of events in the districts of Republican congressmen Frank Wolf and Bob Goodlatte, who notably will not be sharing a stage with their Chicago colleague.

Earlier this summer, Gutierrez made similar visits to Washington, Oregon, California, Florida and New York. Throw in a visit with central Illinois congressman Aaron Schock’s constituents in D.C., and under different circumstances you might suspect Gutierrez was running for something.

As it is, there is no secret about what motivates Gutierrez and moves him across the map these days: the stretch drive for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

“We can’t wait any longer. We need to reach an agreement,” he said. “We can’t wait for another presidential cycle.”

Although he still doesn’t get the respect back home he would prefer, Gutierrez is a national leader for the Democratic party on immigration reform and, as such, is much in demand these days as a drawing card at organizing rallies.

Even some House Republicans are willing to work with Gutierrez to help them sell support for an immigration bill, following his well-publicized joint appearance on the subject last spring with GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan — although that won’t be the case when he goes to Virginia next week to the home district of Goodlatte.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte will be an important gatekeeper on the eventual shape of any immigration legislation, and his recent comments opposing a “special pathway to citizenship” have raised alarm bells among immigration advocates.

Still, Gutierrez plans nothing more nettlesome than his presence. “I don’t go to Goodlatte’s district to condemn him. I will go there to generate enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

Unfortunately, Gutierrez said, enthusiasm has waned in the immigrant community since the U.S. Senate approved the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation, raising a false expectation the House would soon follow suit .

Now that it’s clear that Republican leadership in the House still poses a major hurdle, reform advocates are going back to basics.

“I think people think this is going to happen, and it’s only going to happen if we maintain pressure and support,” Gutierrez said. “Sometimes you just need grass-roots people in the streets.”

Gutierrez is drawing on lessons learned in his formative years in Chicago, a subject much on his mind as he puts the finishing touches on his autobiography, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill,” due to be released Oct. 7.

The first is something he learned from watching Harold Washington win election and then re-election as Chicago’s mayor.

“You’ve got to mobilize the base, and you’ve got to keep them active,” Gutierrez says, which is what he’s trying to do with his national travel itinerary.

The other lesson came from a college philosophy course: that it’s better to do “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Along those lines, he is determined to find ways to compromise with Republicans to pass an immigration reform bill, even if that means accepting legislation that will fall short of what he would have preferred.

“This cannot be a partisan solution,” said Gutierrez, a member of the bipartisan Gang of Seven that has tried to draft a bill that could pass the House. The goal is to get the issue before a joint House-Senate conference committee that will write the final legislation.

With about 190 of Congress’ 201 Democrats on board for immigration reform, that leaves supporters 28 votes short of the 218 needed to pass a bill, Gutierrez said.

From one perspective, that actually would be very doable. “There are 40 Republicans every day of the week for comprehensive immigration reform,” Gutierrez said..

But House Speaker John Boehner is sticking with a policy that no legislation will be advanced in the House that isn’t supported by a majority of Republican representatives. That’s a different kettle of fish.

“We have to overcome that,” said Gutierrez, which means attending rallies in far-flung places and raising the millions of dollars it will take to mobilize — some of it from Republican-friendly supporters eager to get the GOP on the right side of the issue with a rapidly growing Latino voting population.

Gutierrez’s job is to make it problematic for them to do otherwise.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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