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Rep. Luis Gutierrez Speaks Out on Obama’s Immigration Policies

People have been mesmerized today by writer Jose Antonio Vargas’ revelation in a New York Times Magazine piece that he is an undocumented immigrant. He didn’t find this out until he tried to get a driver’s license on his 16th birthday, and he was told that his papers were fake. In fact, he was smuggled into America from the Philippines when he was 12, without the proper documents.

The piece is incredible, and you should all go read it. But it’s also not unusual. Millions of young people who describe themselves as Americans have this story, or a variation of it. They basically have no connection to their original homeland, and no say in the matter when they were sent to the United States. Like most kids, they obeyed their parents and did what they were told. They worked hard in school, maybe signed up for the military, took a summer job, looked at colleges, tried to take advantage of the opportunity their parents provided.

But they have not been able to get a path to become citizens of the only country they really know. In fact, they live in perpetual danger of deportation, particularly over the past two years, when the Obama Administration has taken 800,000 undocumented immigrants off the streets and out of the country.

At Netroots Nation, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), the nation’s leading advocate for DREAM Act students, the undocumented, and comprehensive immigration reform, talked to a small group of writers for around an hour on a wide variety of issues. As Elise Foley, another member of the small group, writes, Gutierrez was armed with a list of demands for the President, actions he could take in his capacity as President to relieve the suffering on the undocumented community and move the nation forward. If he doesn’t, Gutierrez believes, millions of Hispanic Americans will not vote next year in the Presidential election. And the President knows the risks.

“500,000 Latinos turn 18 every year,” said Rep. Gutierrez, an early supporter of the President, despite the admiration in his community for Bill and Hillary Clinton. “93% of all Latinos under 18 are citizens. 74% of all Latinos in US are citizens. I go around the country, and there’s disillusionment. They’re going to stay home. And the President knows it. He went to El Paso and made a speech on immigration. He just went to Puerto Rico. If you want to go take pictures with people and drink pina coladas, fine. It’s not going to matter unless he does something substantive.”

Gutierrez has three major demands for the President, which he believes would deal with 2 million of the estimated 12 million undocumented currently in America.

First, Gutierrez wants the White House to fix the “Secure Communities” program, not an act of legislation but an executive program, so it goes after “gangbangers and drug dealers” and not undocumented immigrants without criminal records. Furthermore, the President should allow jurisdictions to withdraw from the program.

Secure Communities is a Homeland Security initiative that shares fingerprint data from individuals booked at the local level against a FBI and DHS database, checking for immigration status. This has resulted in sweeping up undocumented immigrants for as little as a broken tail light or being witnesses to a crime. At least four states – Illinois, California, New York and Massachusetts – have tried to opt out of the program, which is part of the contract, but were told by the government that they cannot.

Shortly after Gutierrez called for these changes, the Administration made some minor tweaks to the program, adding “prosecutorial discretion” and ensuring that victims and witnesses will not end up deported, but immigration rights advocates have dismissed the modest changes. Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense), said,

The reforms of Secure Communities announced by the federal government this Friday afternoon are inadequate to resolve the serious problems with the program. They amount to little more than lipstick on a pig, except that this is a snarling, vicious, and rabid pig that will continue to run rampant and inflict serious damage on families and communities across the nation. The only appropriate step is to quarantine this pig by placing a moratorium on Secure Communities and relying on pre-existing programs that mainly employ post-conviction immigration detainers on serious offenders.

Next, Gutierrez seeks a better definition of “extreme hardship” so that families who cannot travel to get their visa, or who have small children or are in the military, can stay in the country for a period of time. “If you’re undocumented and you get a visa, you have to stay out of the country for 10 years,” said Gutierrez. “An American citizen has to travel to Ciudad Juarez, which is the only place in Mexico to get a visa. And Americans are told by the State Department not to travel there because of the danger! That’s an extreme hardship.”

But the final demand would effect people like Jose Antonio Vargas. Gutierrez believes that the government can use its authority to defer action on deportation or give parole to DREAM students, which would allow them to work in this country prior to changes in the immigration system. What happens now is that they get dragged through the process all the way to the last moment, and then, if somebody masses some public outrage over the action, they step in. “When does a petition and gets a few hundred signatures, they stop the deportation,” said Gutierrez. “Don’t tell me you ain’t got the power.” Those, of course, are only the students we know about, the ones who attracted enough attention to get the media involved. Countless others were probably not as lucky.

The President maintains that he has prioritized deportations only for those with a criminal record. But “criminal record” could mean a lot of things: parking tickets, or driving without a license (undocumented immigrants cannot obtain a driver’s license, so it’s a catch-22). In domestic violence disputes, often both parties get booked, and the victim could end up being deported through this shared data system. So an undocumented wife has almost no rights even if she is being abused, given the threat of deportation. Gutierrez estimates that over 50% of those deported don’t have any criminal record, and a lot of the others have minor crimes. “Being undocumented gets you in trouble in the US,” he said.

So why have there been so many deportations, more than under the Bush Administration? Gutierrez suggested that the White House feels they have a mandate from Congress to deport 400,000 people a year. Which means they’re literally breaking up families to fulfill a budgetary authority. Congress has expanded deportation systems and given DHS more money to deport. So the contractors have been paid, and now they have to be used. That’s how Secure Communities, a real cash cow for the contractors, was created. And that’s why they don’t want states dropping out. “The fastest-growing airline in the country is the one that flies around undocumented immigrants,” said Gutierrez. In the end, it comes down to money, for detention, information sharing and the mechanics of deportation.

Gutierrez and his colleagues are planning a campaign called Change Takes Courage, which will take them to many cities to hear testimony from undocumented individuals, and press for relief. Events have been set up with Rep. Yvette Clarke in Brooklyn and Rep. Jared Polis in Colorado.

This is the only way, according to Gutierrez, to actually win back a Hispanic community who wants to absolve Obama for these transgressions, but who has seen the devastation hit close to home. “This isn’t a segregated community. My daughter has either brought friends to the house who didn’t have papers or told stories about parents. People know when you deport a million people.”

Gutierrez considers these actions a “conservative, moderate use” of the President’s authority. And it’s an authority the President is already using. The government gave temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants after the 2010 earthquake, in some cases taking them out of jails and putting them back on the streets with work visas, and people said almost nothing. Right now, the Administration is using Secure Communities without a Congressional law to aid in the rounding up of 400,000 immigrants a year. Right now, undocumented students get let off the hook at the last minute, through discretionary authority. Gutierrez said he found a memorandum signed in the 1990s by Henry Hyde, in which Republicans said to Janet Reno, to use the broad powers they have at their discretion to keep families together when immigration law doesn’t quite fit.

Gutierrez continued, “The Administration says if we use authority, the GOP will respond legislatively to take it away from us. Well, then you can’t do anything! Why’d we put you there?”

A pervasive point made in the immigration community, and many other communities actually, is that if they push Obama too hard it will hurt him in the next election. So there’s a tension between wanting to push and getting an unintended result. Gutierrez rejected that, saying that a failure to push would have negative consequences for the community AND the election, because Hispanics won’t turn out. “Civil rights and human rights movements cannot be aligned so closely with parties. It has to move independent. I think of Rosa Parks. When she was getting on the bus, did she ever say, ‘Will this upset the Speaker?'”

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David Dayen

David Dayen