The Hill: Gridlock on immigration reform is unacceptable

Feb 12, 2013 Issues: Immigration

Everyone in the media and in Washington is saying, “This is the year we will pass immigration reform.” And everyone I talk to says, “We have heard that before and it never happens. Why should we believe you this time?” That is a fair question, but I am extremely optimistic that immigration reform will get across the finish line this year. The policy, the politics, the economics and the momentum from the last election are all lining up and pointing towards action, if the people make it happen.

Notice I said the people, and not the lawmakers. I have been in Washington long enough to know that if the people outside the Capitol are not demanding action from the people inside the Capitol — every day, loudly, in every conceivable way — it just won’t happen. The president is already using his bully pulpit, and bipartisan legislative progress is being made on Capitol Hill. But the people must demand change and pressure Congress from the outside in order to ensure action inside the dome. That is the only way we break through the gridlock on immigration that has lasted decades.

My conversations with conservative Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), and many others have been very encouraging. We don’t agree on every detail — yet — but the conversations are starting from a different place. There is no more talk of driving 12 million people out of our country or making all undocumented immigrants “self-deport.” We generally agree to the components of reform: an electronic worker-verification system and secure borders, combined with a broad but rigorous legalization program for immigrants already here, and an efficient legal immigration system for immigrants currently in line and those coming in the future. These are all areas of agreement.

We are just restarting conversations that have lain dormant since Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. (now senator) Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and I hammered out bicameral, bipartisan reform in 2005. Having Republicans back at the table is a big change, but so is the sense of urgency coming from the American people. Our current immigration mess is unsustainable and it creates impatience on the part of lawmakers, voters, huge sectors of the economy and our society, and certainly in immigrant and Latino communities.

We deport more than 1,000 people per day and spend $18 billion per year enforcing our immigration laws. That is more than we spend on the war on drugs, protecting the president, fighting counterfeiters and investigating corruption and jailing governors, city council members and members of Congress — more than all federal law enforcement spending combined.

We are deporting the parents of U.S. citizens at a rate of about 250 per day, leaving U.S. citizen children orphaned or uprooted. The agents of the Department of Homeland Security have a unique mandate: “Today at work, how do I take parents away from their U.S. citizen children?” In the neighborhoods in my district in Chicago, families are being split apart.

Immigration is a civil-rights issue and a human-rights issue and a matter of family survival. Latino and immigrant citizens who turned out in massive numbers to support President Obama and Democrats do not have infinite patience. They will not accept gridlock, partisan bickering or any attempts to delay serious action. Republicans want the immigration issue off the table so that Democrats can’t use the issue to run the table in an electoral sense. But Democrats, beware: you will be called out if you try to play a political game with immigration or use it as a wedge. Democrats must deliver.

In his inaugural address, the president alluded to the inside/outside-strategy. He will need to help organize and mobilize the American people to demand real progress from the gridlocked Congress. He said, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.” I agree, and would add to that the voices of people who are not yet citizens. The ancient values and enduring ideals of justice and fairness in our immigration laws are powerful, but everyone will need to lift their voice to make sure the Congress does not fail to achieve a result.

Gutierrez represents the Fourth District of Illinois.