Fiery Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez stood before a crowd of some 100 North Bay Latino leaders at Chateau St. Jean Winery in Kenwood Saturday afternoon, and told them he would be leaving them shortly to go to the airport to catch a redeye flight back to Chicago.
“At 5 a.m., I’m going to get to my house, and my wife and my daughter and my granddaughter know I’m coming home. Doesn’t it break your heart that there are millions of people who don’t know their fathers are coming home?”
Gutierrez, an 11-term Chicago Democrat who has been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. for his willingness to perform acts of civil disobedience in support of immigration reform, was in the Sonoma Valley with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, to stir up support for House passage of the stalled immigration reform bill that the U.S. Senate passed last year. The millions Gutierrez was referencing, who might not see their fathers or husbands in the morning, are the undocumented Latinos with U.S.-born children who have been deported in record numbers by the Obama Administration, often leaving broken families behind.
Both Gutierrez and Thompson, who have collaborated in sponsoring immigration reform legislation, voiced confidence that the U.S. Congress is closer to passage of an immigration reform bill than any time since 1986.
“We need to get immigration reform done because it’s the right thing to do,” said Thompson, “because it saves money, it saves jobs, it grows the economy. The labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree on this. Usually they don’t agree on what time it is.”
Thompson, a Vietnam War combat veteran, told the crowd, “I gauge someone on whether I’d want to spend time in a foxhole with him. That’s Luis Gutierrez, he’s got your back.”
Gutierrez promptly announced that, “Today, they deported 1,100 people. We have to think about the tens of thousands of citizens who have been left orphans … When people came through Ellis Island, there was a way to get here. Today, there is no way.”
Gutierrez, the first Latino member of Congress from the Midwest, said, “The food that is picked here is picked with foreign hands. We want the opportunity to integrate fully into the American community … I don’t want to go to the grocery and not be paying respect to the people who picked the food.”
The Senate version of an immigration reform bill – S. 744 – ramps up internal and external border security measures, enhances legal routes to immigration and citizenship while simultaneously making it harder – in part through electronic verification technology – for undocumented workers to find jobs. It provides more security for so-called “dreamers,” the children of illegal immigrants brought to this country under the age of 15 who have lived here for at least five years and are currently students, graduates or in the military. And it proposes a new visa category for low-skilled workers, eliminating one hurdle skilled workers don’t have to climb over. That’s important to Gutierrez.
“They say, if you’re high tech, ‘Come on in, bring your wife and your children.’ Well, the workers of today are the workers of today … Somebody’s got to do the work that doesn’t take a college degree. And they (Latino laborers) do it with joy and happiness. (But) every time they stigmatize them, they stigmatize you and me.”
Thompson and Gutierrez both expressed hope the House logjam can be broken. Gutierrez, referring to his now-famous relationship with Wisconsin Republican and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, told the Chateau St. Jean crowd, “I saw Paul Ryan in the gym a couple weeks after the election, and I asked him, ‘Can we work on immigration reform?’ And he said to me, ‘I’ll work on immigration reform with you, but only on moral grounds. I’m a Catholic, you’re a Catholic. It’s the moral thing to do.’”
Gutierrez said there are now 4- to 5-million “dreamers” in the U.S., many at risk of having parents deported while they can legally remain thanks to President Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) initiative.
At the end of his speech the crowd spontaneously began chanting “si, se puede,” (yes we can) and Gutierrez responded, “Still dreaming.”