Author Interviews
10:52 am
Thu October 10, 2013

Rep. Gutierrez: I Am A Product Of The Civil Rights Movement

Originally published on Thu October 10, 2013 1:03 pm

The nation is in the 10th day of a government shutdown, and the deadline over raising the debt limit is quickly approaching. But all that might seem like a day at the park for Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). He explains why in his new memoir Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.

He speaks with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his political journey and the fight for immigration reform.


Interview Highlights

Opening the book with his house burning down in the 1980s – when he began his career as an activist – because someone threw a brick and Molotov Cocktail through his window. Nobody was arrested, but Gutierrez suspected it might have been political rivals in Chicago.

Chicago was very tense politically and also racially charged. ... When the brick came through my window, I didn't know a brick came through. I was asleep. But a gallon of gasoline is a very destructive force. And I don't go around trying to attribute who's responsible. Whoever did it, I forgave them a long time ago. My life has moved on. I'm happy. My daughter, my wife and I are fine.

Proudly getting arrested for fighting for immigration rights

I am a product of the civil rights movement. Think about it: Black people in this country don't raise up their voices. They're murdered. Their churches are bombed in Birmingham. They're lynched. I mean, think of all of the sacrifices that people went through so that we could pass a Civil Rights Act. I was born in 1953. Now I was born in Chicago, as I relate in the book. But it was a segregated city. There were swimming pools, there were beaches, there were neighborhoods you did not venture into except for risk of your life. ... So I wanted to inform people about that, and this for me is a continuation of a civil rights movement. There's 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. There are five million American citizen children whose parents are undocumented. ... So what I said on the [National] Mall: Look, I'm going to deprive myself of my freedom and my liberty, and so will others, so that someone else can be free. That is kind of the struggle of freedom. And I also want to tell people: fight and challenge the system.

Fixing America's immigration system

There are between 40 and 50 Republicans ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform. ... When we were in the majority, the Democrats, in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, we never took up the issue. ... You know why we didn't? Because a) Democrats were afraid that they were going to lose the majority if they took up the issue. My Mayor of the City of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel, who headed up the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], said it's the third rail of politics. We didn't do it. We're ready to do it. I'm happy that Democrats have come around, and that we've gained exposure to Republicans.

I think it gets fixed in this Congress. Nothing's going to happen right now. I understand that. But there are conversations today. There were conversations yesterday. And there are conversations planned for tomorrow in preparation among those of us that want to get this done for that moment. So when the light – when we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we'll be ready to move forward.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics were announced this week. We'll speak with a scientist who tells us why you should care about their research - what she says is the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st century. That's ahead.

But first, we have a newsmaker interview with Congressman Luis Gutierrez. We're speaking with him as the country experiences the 10th day of a government shutdown. The deadline over raising the debt limit is also coming up fast. But all that might seem like a day at the park for Congressman Luis Gutierrez. He'll explain why in his new memoir "Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill." And he's here with us now. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ: It's great to be with you again, Michel.

MARTIN: The book opens with your house burning down 'cause somebody had just thrown a brick with a Molotov cocktail through the window. This is back when you were just beginning your career as an activist...

GUTIERREZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the '80s. Nobody was ever arrested for this. The police at the time didn't seem terribly interested in who had done this. But you suspect that it was people who were trying to discourage your growing...

GUTIERREZ: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Political, you know, activism. Why did you start the book this way?

GUTIERREZ: Well, first of all, we wanted to grab people's attention. We wanted to bring it in. And we thought, you see Luis Gutierrez today and you see him on a morning talk show or on cable or evening or at NPR...

MARTIN: With your nice suit on...

GUTIERREZ: Right. With the nice suit on...

MARTIN: ...And your tie.

GUTIERREZ: ...And the tie. And then you'll see pictures, and you'll Google. You'll see my wife and my kids. And, you know, you'll see who I am in the Congress speaking. And we wanted tell people, you know, when they talked about Beirut-on-the-Lake, which is how they referred to the days when we elected the first black man as mayor of the city of Chicago - you know, look, we were north of the Mason-Dixon line.

But Chicago was very tense politically and also racially charged, but within the Democratic Party. I mean, think about it. Today, I would only wonder what would happen - fathom what would happen if a member of the Democratic caucus, my caucus, were to become the Democratic nominee of Chicago and the chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, right? One of the most powerful committees - and he'd be a Democrat, too, and other Democrats would be for the Republican.

MARTIN: Actually sent people out - actually sent his workers, campaign workers out...

GUTIERREZ: Yeah. They came to my house.

MARTIN: ... to campaign for the Republican to avoid electing this African-American man.

GUTIERREZ: And that's his - and that's his - they're colleagues in the Congress. And he is a confidant of presidents - of Democratic presidents, a leader of the Democratic caucus. That Chicago...

MARTIN: And you wanted to know, this isn't ancient history. This is the way things were.

GUTIERREZ: This is...

MARTIN: And it wasn't that long ago.

GUTIERREZ: It was 1983. It was Chicago. So when the brick came through my window, I didn't know brick came through. I was asleep. But a gallon of gasoline is a very destructive force. And I don't go around trying to attribute who is responsible. Whoever did it, I forgave them a long time ago. My life has moved on. I'm happy. My daughter, my wife and I are fine. And that I'm where I'm at today.

MARTIN: Well, fast forward to this week. You, along with a number of other members of Congress - you know, you reference the Civil Rights era and racial tension. You, along with a number of other members of the House, including civil rights icon John Lewis, just got arrested at an immigration rights rally in D.C.

This is not the first time you've been arrested around this issue. Why do you feel that that's important to do? I mean, some people might argue that that's beneath the dignity of your office. Why do you think that that's important?

GUTIERREZ: I think it's important because it informs you a little bit about who I am. I am a product of the civil rights movement. Think about it. Black people in this country don't raise up their voices. They're murdered. Their churches are bombed in Birmingham. They're lynched. I mean, think of all of the sacrifices that people went through so that we could pass a Civil Rights Act. I was born in 1953.

Now, I was born in Chicago, as I relate in the book. But it was a segregated city. There were swimming pools, there were beaches, there were neighborhoods you did not venture into, except for risk of your life. You had - what do they call it - that street smarts and street savvy? You understood. So I wanted to inform people about that. And this, for me, is a continuation of a civil rights movement. There's 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. There are five million American citizen children whose parents are undocumented, I think, of 1,100. So what I said on the mall, look, I'm going to deprive myself of my freedom and my liberty, and so will others, so that someone else can be free. That is kind of the struggle of freedom. And I also want to tell people, fight and challenge the system.

MARTIN: You have become one of the most - if not the most - foremost voice of the push for immigration reform with a path to citizenship as a clear goal. The irony - maybe it is an irony, or not - is that you are of Puerto Rican descent.

GUTIERREZ: Yes.

MARTIN: And Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Everybody in your family is an American citizen. So why is this your issue?

GUTIERREZ: As I describe in the book, look, think of my mom. She's 19-years-old. I mean, she lives on a hill with no water and one bulb in a room. That's for her family. She's been through sixth grade. She has to take care of her sister. My dad, I think he went to eighth or ninth grade. It's 1952. I don't even know how they packed up and came to New York and then to Chicago without coats, without understanding the language, with nothing.

Michel, if you and I were in New York and it was 60 years ago, when my mom and dad, what would they hear on the radio? They'd hear about politicians saying that we got to stop the Puerto Ricans from coming to New York 'cause they're bringing diseases from the tropics. Whether they had let my parents here - that they've come here with violence, that they've come here to get welfare. Think about the reception my parents and hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans met, even as citizens.

MARTIN: OK, but they're citizens, and every country defends its borders.

GUTIERREZ: If you ask me what informs me - I see my mom, I see my dad, I see them coming as migrants not understanding the language. And I want to be a voice for those that are set aside, those that are rejected, those of which, you know, there are punitive measures used against 'cause, you know, it wasn't true about my mom and dad. The same arguments are being used against immigrants today. Now I say we have a broken immigration system. Everyone says, well, why don't they come legally? Because you just don't show up, right, in New York City on a boat and get into the country 'cause there are no visas 'cause the system is so broken. And American citizens can't get their wives, American citizen children can't fix their parents. Nobody can fix anybody's situation 'cause the situation is so bad and so broken.

MARTIN: Just about everybody involved in the political system agrees that the system is broken. And yet, once again, the bill has been tabled. Why is it that something that everybody agrees is a problem isn't being fixed?

GUTIERREZ: OK. It's inevitable. That it is a force for fairness and for justice. And today, the community is more sophisticated and more demanding and more organized. Nobody's tired. Nobody's frustrated. Nobody's going to give up. I think it's very different. It seems to me that all across America people have reached an agreement. And last, Washington, D.C. is the city of fact checking, right, especially for politicians 'cause we say things. And then we say, did they tell the truth? Here's something I've repeated on numerous occasion that goes uncontested - there are between 40 and 50 Republicans ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform. A reform that is broad, that is expansive, and that is just similar - not identical - similar to the one - and there are at least 180. Michel, when we were in the majority, the Democrats in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, we never took up the issue.

It wasn't like the Democratic leadership - let's get 218 votes, but we were 250 strong. You know why we did it? 'Cause A, Democrats were afraid that they were going to lose the majority if they took up the issue. My mayor of the city of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who headed up the DCCC, said it's the third rail of politics. We didn't do it. We're ready to do it. I'm happy the Democrats have finally come around, and that we've gained exposure to Republicans. If you go back to November 6 of last year, here was the Republican party - self-deportation, that is just pack and leave. That's how we get rid of 11 million people and deal with them. That's what they said. It's in their platform. I'll veto the DREAM Act. Third they said, oh, why don't we just replicate SB 1070, the anti-immigrant, show me your papers law of Arizona. Think, I stand with the vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, in Chicago, and the two of us stand for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. And look where we're at today.

MARTIN: So I would be remiss if I did not ask you about the current circumstances, which in some ways are analogous to the ones that you faced when you were on the Chicago City Council. We talked a little bit earlier about the fight to get Harold Washington elected, who eventually was elected, first black mayor of Chicago, and then found himself with a very recalcitrant city council. So in some ways, this is probably very familiar to you.

GUTIERREZ: It is.

MARTIN: But the rest of the country's kind of looking at it and saying, what's it going to take to bridge this stalemate?

GUTIERREZ: The stalemate on immigration will be dealt with and we're in a very dark moment. Those House floor debates don't engender pride in terms of the level of the debate and what's going on in the House. But it'll clear up. Look, Republicans understand something. They understand that they can be a party of localities, of providences, maybe a state or two, but they'll never be a national party again. One thing that Barack Obama was able to do - and it was, like, so many pundits and commentators on election night - oh, wow, 12 million Latinos voted? And they're making a difference in Colorado? And they're making a difference in New Mexico? And that's why Barack's carrying Florida? Wait, you know, it wasn't a surprise to you. It wasn't a surprise to me. But it was a surprise to so much of America.

MARTIN: So you're saying it's going to have to wait until the next election...

GUTIERREZ: No.

MARTIN: The next mid-term elections to address this?

GUTIERREZ: What I'm saying is, they understand that two million more Latinos voted in 2008 than in 2004. Two million more voted in 2012 than in 2008. And they understand there - it's 75 percent. You don't have to get a majority of Latino votes in order to elect someone president of the United States, but you can't get - you can't do three-to-one. Look at the electoral map. They understand that. And it's only a growing community.

And the community is growing at a time where - 'cause there's this connection. You say I'm a citizen. Those are the people that sent me to Congress for the last 11 terms. They know as well as you, Michel, that my primary issue here is reform of our immigration system, a pathway to citizens for 11 million. But the citizens of the 4th Congressional District, one time after another, send me here. That, I think, should be sense of pride that they say, go do something for someone that doesn't have what we have.

MARTIN: So when does this get fixed?

GUTIERREZ: I think it gets fixed in this Congress. Nothing's going to happen right now. I understand that. But there are conversations today, there were conversations yesterday, and there are conversations planned for tomorrow, in preparation, among those of us that want to get this done, for that moment. So when the light - when we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we'll be ready to move forward.

MARTIN: Luis Gutierrez is a member of Congress. He represents the 4th Congressional District, which includes Chicago. We've been talking about his new book. It's a memoir. It's called "Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill." He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Congressman Gutierrez, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.