The Senate is set to vote on a controversial immigration bill. If it fails, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez tells Bryan Curtis he’s prepared to ditch Obama and the Democrats—and take the movement to the streets.
It’s zero hour for the DREAM Act, a bit of immigration legislation that has taken on a hulking importance among Hispanic leaders. For two years, Barack Obama failed—or, if you prefer, refused—to nudge along a major immigration bill. The last-ditch hope is that departing Democrats, and a few Republicans, somehow band together in the lame-duck session and pass a law allowing illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors to gain citizenship. Harry Reid promised to bring up the bill for a Senate cloture vote this week. Republicans vowed to scuttle it, just as they did in September.
But as Chicago congressman Luis Gutiérrez prepares for a rally at a church in Brooklyn a few weeks before the vote, the DREAM Act seems like the end of his interest in congressional gamesmanship rather than the start. Gutiérrez is one of several Hispanic leaders who have found themselves politically estranged from the president. Moreover, they are numbed by the legislative process that denied them a vote on immigration reform, much less a victory, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. “If we couldn’t do it when Democrats were nearly 260 in the House and 59 in the Senate, how do we propose to tell people we can do it now?” Gutiérrez tells me. “The opportunity to have gotten it done is gone.”
The DREAM Act, Gutiérrez says, is for now his final legislative maneuver. He’s finished waiting for the mythical 60th vote to materialize in the Senate. No, when the lame duck ends, Gutiérrez and his movement allies will ask for a divorce—from the Democratic Party, from the entire lawmaking process. To hear Gutiérrez tell it, Hispanic leaders are about to stage a full-tilt campaign of direct action, like the African-American civil-rights movement of the 1960s. There will be protests, marches, sit-ins—what César Chávez might have called going rogue. The movement will operate autonomously, no longer beholden to wavering Democrats, filibustering Republicans, and—perhaps most tantalizingly—no longer beholden to Barack Obama.
Gutiérrez, 56, is a wiry, handsome man whose childlike features mask his penchant for roaring oratory. He is a master of the bilingual stemwinder, toggling between English and Spanish in alternating sentences, judo-chopping his applause lines. A recent Pew Hispanic Center poll named Gutiérrez as the second-most important Latino leader in America, behind only Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. As we speak in a room inside St. Brigid’s Church, a Mexican-Dominican-Ecuadorean congregation in Brooklyn, journalists from New York’s Spanish-language papers pry open the door to peek at us. They look at me and give me the cut sign across the neck so that they, too, can get a word with Gutiérrez.
If Gutiérrez is leaving the legislative process behind, the move will follow a long and strange odyssey. Gutiérrez has been attempting to write reform legislation since the Bush administration. (George W. Bush, like Obama, supported immigration reform.) The election of a longtime ally who promised to push for reform within one year of taking office seemed to offer new hope.
But after the deadline expired, Hispanic leaders began to look at Obama less as an ally than an antagonist. In January, President Obama devoted only a single sentence of his State of the Union to immigration reform, when many reform advocates expected it to be a centerpiece of the speech. In the spring, after Obama excluded illegal immigrants from a provision of the Affordable Care Act, Gutiérrez blasted him in an op-ed. “Barack Obama has delivered ‘change,’” he wrote. “It’s been a change for the worse.” In a move to ratchet up pressure on Obama, Gutiérrez got himself arrested outside the White House at a May rally.
In September, Gutiérrez met with Obama in the Oval Office. Immigration reform still hadn’t budged, but he was thinking big. “Let’s do comprehensive in the lame duck,” Gutiérrez recalls telling Obama. “It’ll be our last chance, Mr. President. Because if things are bad now, imagine what it’s going to be like with new Republicans coming in, Tea Party, the Senate…” The key word here is “comprehensive.” Gutiérrez was suggesting that Obama bypass piecemeal reform like the DREAM Act and go for the whole enchilada—a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants. According to Gutiérrez, Obama agreed then to push a comprehensive plan in the lame duck. (The White House wouldn’t comment on the conversation.)
As the election neared, Gutiérrez was bent on holding the president to his word. On October 30, he collared Obama on the O’Hare tarmac as he stepped off the plane for a rally. Gutiérrez told the president he wanted to meet right after that Tuesday’s election to plot strategy. Obama apologized and said he couldn’t make it—he was off on a scheduled 10-day trip to Asia.
“We lost two weeks, which is probably half of the lame duck,” Gutiérrez laments now. In the push for immigration reform, it was a typically baffling setback. Gutiérrez and his allies shelved their grand plans and decided to make a play for the DREAM Act instead.
“It’s what we call Plan B,” says Jorge Ramos, a news anchor for the Spanish-language network Univision and an advocate for reform. These days, Ramos—who finished two spots behind Gutiérrez in the Pew survey of Latino leaders—speaks with the same wariness of the legislative process as the congressman. For it was Ramos, back in 2008, who extracted the promise from Obama to push immigration reform within one year.
“The real story behind everything has to be that we missed a great opportunity to have immigration reform approved when Barack Obama and the Democrats had true control of both chambers,” says Ramos.
“I think Hillary Clinton was right,” he adds. “When she was running for president, she said that immigration reform needed to be done during the first 100 days. Of course, she didn’t win and that didn’t happen, and look where we are right now.”
“If we couldn’t do it when Democrats were nearly 260 in the House and 59 in the Senate, how do we propose to tell people we can do it now?” Gutiérrez says. “The opportunity to have gotten it done is gone.”
None of this is to say Latino voters have dumped Obama. “The honeymoon is not quite over,” says Fernand Amandi, the managing partner of the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi. A June Gallup poll showed Obama down more than 10 points among Hispanics. But as the midterms neared, the immigrant salvos of candidates like Jan Brewer and Sharron Angle made the president seem more appealing to Hispanic voters. If Obama had once looked like the hesitator-in-chief, next to Brewer and Angle he looked like César Chávez. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.
This, then, is the dilemma for Hispanic leaders: They find themselves wedded to a president and a party that is their only conceivable hope to pass immigration reform. But the president and the party—because of the GOP, or because of internal priorities—could not pass immigration reform.
Which brings us to the divorce. “I haven’t thought this out completely,” Gutiérrez says in the church. Then he begins tentatively spelling out a plan to sever the immigration-reform movement from the Democrats.
“We need to decouple the movement for comprehensive immigration reform and justice for immigrants from the legislative process and from the Democratic Party process,” Gutiérrez says. “They are too linked.”
“When black people in this country decided they were going to fight for civil rights and for voting rights, they didn’t ask if the majority leader was with them and when they were going to tee up the bill. They said, ‘We’re sitting where we need to sit on the bus! We’re integrating this counter! We’re going to march!'”
Gutiérrez is pacing around the room and his voice is rising. “Their actions propelled the nation. It’s the way changes are made. Look at John F. Kennedy—he was president. Martin Luther King, I don’t think he was real concerned whether he was going to reelected in 1964.”
This is a pretty radical notion, especially for a sitting congressman. And Gutiérrez is quick to suggest the goals of the Democrats and immigration movement may not jibe. “Is it reelect the president?” Gutiérrez asks. “Is that your priority? Or is it get comprehensive immigration reform? Those things can be in contradiction with one another.”
“The Democratic Party is the party of immigrants. But its leader—in this case, Barack Obama—has to continue to be challenged.”
“I’m not the only one thinking this way,” he adds.
In the broad strokes, the kind of divide Gutiérrez is talking about is not only reminiscent of the African-American civil-rights movement, but the arms-length distance the Chicano Movement kept from the political establishment during most of its late-1960s heyday.
As the rally begins in the sanctuary of St. Brigid’s Church, the extent of the divorce is already becoming clear. A letter is passed around demanding that Obama sign an executive order to stop deportations, one of the acts the president can authorize without Senate approval. “You just need a pen,” the petition reads. Gutiérrez’s dual roles as a powerful legislator and civil-rights leader put him in the crosshairs, too. Some of the students who would become eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act have tweeted at Gutiérrez, asking him to stop appearing on cable TV on their behalf. When the immigration-reform movement has divorced Gutiérrez, it has truly gone rogue.
Gutiérrez says the moment for direct action to make its mark is now, and over the next several months, before a presidential campaign once again reduces the political world to a binary choice. Until then, Barack Obama will no longer have Luis Gutiérrez and his allies inside the tent raising a ruckus. They will be on the outside holding a sign.
Bryan Curtis is a national correspondent at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.