Remarks at E Pluribus Unum Prizes Ceremony

Dec 4, 2013 Issues: Immigration

Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez
Remarks at E Pluribus Unum Prizes Ceremony
Hosted by the Migration Policy Institute
Mayflower Hotel, Washington DC
December 4, 2013

The annual E Pluribus Unum Prizes are given to promising projects in immigrant integration at a conference convened by the Migration Policy Institute (www.migrationpolicy.org) in Washington.  This year's event was held at the Mayflower Hotel on December 4, 2013 and Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL) delivered the keynote address.  The following is the text, as prepared for delivery:

            Thank you to Margie McHugh and the team at MPI for inviting me to be a part of today's ceremony.  And congratulations to all of the recipients.  Your recognition, and the injection of some much needed money, means you are leading the way.

            The E-Pluribus-Unum awards program and the thinking behind it is something I strongly support.  And just the phrase E-Pluribus-Unum is evocative of the founding principles of our nation.  Out of many, one.  Like immigration and the integration of immigrants into our national fabric, it is a bedrock principle and a building block of our nation's history.

            To borrow another phrase from our nation's history, I want to lay out a few assumptions that should guide our thinking today and our work over the next dozen months and the next dozen years.

            "We hold these truths to be self-evident," meaning we can all agree on it as a common starting point for the work ahead. 

            We hold these truths to be self-evident that eventually, over the course of a few generations, integration and assimilation problems mostly get resolved in this country.  We no longer complain on Columbus Day about unassimilated Italians or wish the Irish would integrate themselves in American society on St. Patrick's Day.

            Whether it is cuisine, language, dress, values, or culture, America changes immigrants over time and to a certain extent, America and her culture and values are changed and refined by each new generation, including its immigrants. 

            We hold these truths to be self-evident that English is not in any danger. 

            The entire world is desperate to learn English and the United States is no exception.  The question is not the desire to learn English, but our capacity to meet this demand with classes and methods that facilitate English learning.

            I grew up in a truly bilingual family.  My parents spoke Spanish to me and I spoke English to them and we mostly understood each other.  I had to learn Spanish later when my family moved back to Puerto Rico, which was a rude surprise to a 15 year-old Luis Gutierrez.

            When my mom came to the U.S., she didn't even have a winter coat.  In Chicago!  But the Catholic Church was the welcome wagon in our neighborhood and she got her winter coat there.

            Americans are very generous…in the end. 

            And very inclusive…after a while. 

            And love and eventually embrace every wave of new immigrants …after first being skeptical and holding them at arm's length.

            And here is another truth: We hold these truths to be self-evident that almost all of the 11 million or more undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States will live in the United States for the rest of their lives. 

            Most have been here more than a decade.  Most live in families.  And their children are mostly citizens of the United States.

            They are not a problem to be solved, but rather a reality to be embraced and dealt with in our work. 

            They are here.  Joe Arpaio and Mitt Romney, notwithstanding.  The undocumented are not going anywhere no matter how much some people want them to.  So you here in this room are absolutely right to be on the cutting edge of assimilating and integrating them into their society.

            That said, we also hold these truths to be self-evident that there are incredible challenges to working with an undocumented population for policy makers and service providers -- either public or private. 

            But it is equally self-evident that many, if not most, of the issues presented by someone's undocumented status are cleared up when we grant them status. 

            Being afraid of deportation or being afraid that contacting the police or fire department or a doctor could lead to your deportation is a threshold issue that many service providers find difficult to overcome. 

            Imagine that every time your kid goes out on his bike, you worry that he could be injured…well that is true for every mom and dad in history. 

            But imagine that your real fear is not just that your kid gets hurt, but that your family is split up because your immigration status becomes an issue in your son's health care. 

            Signing up for nutrition programs for U.S. citizens can be scary. 

            Signing a kid up for a little league run by the county can be scary. 

            A parent-teacher conference or even your home phone ringing unexpectedly might cause a minor or a major panic.

            Protecting someone from deportation does not solve all their problems, but it is hard for us to help that individual or family solve any of their problems until we do.

            So the 11 million people and their families are staying.  The question before the country now is not whether they stay, but under what conditions they stay.  Whether or not we have an immigration reform bill will not impact whether most of those here end up staying. 

            But we can make that situation much better for the immigrants and for the communities in which immigrants are settling if we have a broad and generous immigration bill that enables and accelerates integration and assimilation.

            Along with MPI and NCLR, my office is working to incorporate an integration component into whatever bill moves in the House.  This combined with the very fact that we are reestablishing legality and legitimacy to our entire immigration system mean that the next decades will be dynamic ones in the field of immigrant integration.

            Now, let me throw out one additional self-evident truth: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all or almost all undocumented immigrants living in the United States will eventually be able to apply for citizenship. 

            Whether we allow that in legislation passed during this Congress or not, eventually everyone here that wants it and is not a convicted felon or other special case, will be allowed to apply for citizenship if they wait long enough.

            There simply is no precedent in American history for a group of people not eventually being embraced.  Even the worst episodes of exclusion and hatred in America were overtaken by history, eventually.

            But more importantly, the power is building every day. 

            I often talk about a man I met earlier this year who said to me:

            Gutierrez, "Find me my papers.  Don’t let my deportation widow my wife or orphan my children.  My children will remember who treated their parents badly and will punish them with their votes.  But right now, I need my papers."

            With or without immigration reform, an average of 880,000 Latino citizens will turn 18 and be eligible to vote each year, which works out to more than 2,000 per day.  That is a staggering figure and these are all citizens.

            As an immigrant and ethnic community, the Asian-Pacific American community is growing faster than the Latino community and as my colleagues like to remind me, is starting to tilt even more heavily away from the Republicans and towards the Democrats.

            There is a demographic tsunami coming at America and any politicians or political structures that try to too hard or too rigidly to stop it will be swept away.

            I still have a lot of optimism that we will get immigration reform done during this Congress.  But this relies on politicians doing the right thing and understanding the political landscape in front of them, which is always a big "if."

            Democrats have to put policy ahead of politics.  If we as a party go the route of what is best for us politically in the short run, there is very little incentive to resolve the immigration issue.  All the human suffering and exploitation and degradation aside, what Republicans have been doing on immigration is very good for the Democrats.  My Party has to resist the temptation to play politics and go for an all or nothing strategy.

            And the Republicans have to break out of their nothing or nothing strategy.  The Democrats have put something on the table in the House, not an ideal bill, but a bill around which more than 190 Democrats and a couple of Republicans have signed on.

            But so far, we really haven't seen anything form House Republicans.  We know what they are against, which they describe in different terms like "amnesty" or "the Senate Bill" or "a bill with 800 pages" or "something Obama wants."

            But we have not seen any concrete, passable or workable proposals. 

            I am optimistic that we will in the early days of next year, get a bill.  I am always optimistic.

            But I am also practical.  The man I referred to earlier didn't say 'get me my citizenship so I can vote.'  He didn't say 'give me a special path to citizenship so I can vote some day.'

            He said get me my papers so I do not leave my wife and children behind if I get deported.  There will be plenty of time for his citizen-children and their children to vote. 

            He does not have the luxury of holding out for the perfect Democratic bill. 

            He wants me to "find his papers" now.

            If we wanted the perfect Democratic Bill, we should have passed it when Democrats were in charge of the House and the Senate and the White House, but we didn't.

            The Republicans insist on passing several bills, not one big one.  The President has said -- and I have said -- 'That's fine.  Do what you need to do.' 

            Some have suggested that the way you thread the needle for Republicans between the immigration reform the country wants, which includes a path to citizenship, and the Republican's number one priority, which is opposing what President Obama is for, is to offer a compromise that includes something less than citizenship.  I don't think this is a good idea because citizenship is important, but I don't think it is a big deal breaker either. 

            Go back to what I said earlier: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all or almost all undocumented immigrants living in the United States will eventually be able to apply for citizenship.  Whether we allow that in legislation passed this year or not. 

            Right now we have to stop the deportations that are breaking up families.

            And if we do not get citizenship this year, we will be back next year and the year after that.

            This is not baseball where we go play nine innings and we are done.

            No.  The fight for justice has infinite innings and we have to be ready to suit up every morning in a clean uniform and go out there every day.

            If we lose, we fight harder.  If we win, we fight harder.  We don't defend our victories, we expand them. 

            If we get any form of immigration reform, our work on integration is just beginning.  We have to get people signed up, we have to keep people from getting scammed, we must escort them through the process, which could take decades.

            Do not give up on immigration reform.  Despite all the obituaries we read in the press, it is not dead yet.  It is not dead even of John Boehner says it is dead.  Number 1 because he may say it is alive next week and send reporters scrambling to rewrite their stories.  Second, this movement for immigration reform and integration is larger than the legislative calendar.

            In the coming months, I predict you will see a bill or bills and you will see Democrats and Republicans working together. 

            When you see that, act.  Act quickly to embrace it.  It will not be perfect, and it may not even be pretty.  But we have a responsibility to move forward if the bills offer real solutions and don’t include poison pills we simply cannot swallow.

            There will be Republicans saying whatever- it-is does too much and Democrats saying it does too little and they could kill any measure before it has even taken its first steps if we let them.

            But there are men and women of intelligence and good will in both parties who want to get this done and we must be ready to support them.

            Again, I want to thank the Migration Policy Institute for allowing me to speak and to congratulate the honorees in the E-Pluribus-Unum awards program. 

            And I ask you to stay tuned, because I will need your help.