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Rep. Luis Gutierrez: Obama Has Discretionary Authority to Advance DREAM Act, Humane Immigration Reform

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Senate Democrats have reintroduced the DREAM Act for the first time since Republicans blocked its passage late last year. Under the measure, immigrant youth would obtain permanent residency with a chance for citizenship, provided they attend college for at least two years or enlist in the U.S. military. The move comes one day after President Obama delivered a major address on immigration reform. We speak to Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senate Democrats reintroduced the DREAM Act on Wednesday. It’s a bill that would grant undocumented young people a chance at citizenship. Under the measure, immigrant youth would obtain permanent residency with a chance for citizenship, provided they attend college for at least two years or enlist in the military.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, and Majority Whip Richard Durbin and 30 others of their colleagues have signed on to support the bill, which failed in Congress last year.

The DREAM Act was introduced one day after President Obama gave a major address on immigration in El Paso, Texas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So we’re going to keep fighting for the DREAM Act. We’re going to keep up the fight for reform. And that’s where you come in. I’m going to do my part to lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues. And we’ve already had a series of meetings about this at the White House in recent weeks. We’ve got leaders here and around the country helping to move the debate forward. But this change ultimately has to be driven by you, the American people. You’ve got to help push for comprehensive reform, and you’ve got to identify what steps we can take right now, like the DREAM Act, like visa reform, areas where we can find common ground among Democrats and Republicans and begin to fix what’s broken.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, speaking in El Paso.

To talk more about the DREAM Act and the President’s speech, we’re joined by Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, joining us from Washington, D.C.

Congressman Gutierrez, welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve begun your own 20-city tour. Can you talk about what you’re calling on President Obama to do?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Yes. We think the President should immediately take administrative actions. Look, the President of the United States has broad discretionary powers that are conferred upon him by the laws of this nation. We don’t need new laws. It’s nice, and I appreciate the President calling upon the nation to begin to work legislatively to pass the DREAM Act, to pass comprehensive immigration reform. But listen, the one million young men and women who could benefit from the DREAM Act should be given some shelter immediately. The President of the United States should simply respond, affirmatively, to 22 U.S. senators, including those that introduced the DREAM Act yesterday — Senator Durbin and Senator Reid — who asked him three weeks ago to do one thing: stop their deportation. He has the authority under the law to do that. He can’t legalize them. He can’t give them a sense of permanency. But he can give them relief, shelter, set them aside and say, “I’m not going to deport them, I’m not going to take prosecutorial action against them, until the Congress of the United States finally deals with the DREAM Act and votes on it one way or another.” That’s the kind of champion, and that’s the kind of affirmative action we would hope from the President of the United States. At a time in which the Republicans are heaping on the immigrant community, where xenophobic tendencies here in the Congress are just at a high, we expect him to respond affirmatively in defending the immigrant community.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Luis Gutierrez, in the final days of the Democratic-controlled Congress, obviously, the DREAM Act failed. But the efforts on your part and other Latino leaders meeting with the administration now for months, my sense is you were hoping for more out of this speech in El Paso than just the urging of the President to Congress once again. Now, with the House under Republican control, he knows the odds are even less for immigration reform, I think. Could you talk about what your hopes had been for this speech?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Sure. Well, let me just — let me just suggest — look, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus met with the President last September. We met again in November. We urged him, given the lack of opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform, to push the single bill on the DREAM Act. We passed it in the House of Representatives, 216 to 198. I just wanted to share with you, Juan, there was 216. Two hundred and eight of that 216 were Democrats. Well, we’re only at 185 now. So how could we hope to even get that close? And of the eight Republicans that voted, four of them are no longer here. So, look, when we had immense majorities, large majorities, we were barely able to get it done. How do we — supposed to get it done?

So we met with the President again in December, just before Christmas. He was on his way to Hawaii. We were on our way for the Christmas break. And we suggested to each other we put our thinking caps on, and we’d come back in the new year, in 2011, and come back and see what kinds of things we could do to help ameliorate the situation of our immigrant community, both from a long term and a short term. We did that, Juan. We went, and we met in mid-February with the chief of staff, Bill Daley. We presented to him a series of administrative actions, under current law, that the President has that can help bring some relief to certain sectors of the immigrant community. And we picked out two.

We said, “Don’t deport anymore, DREAM Act. Parole them in place.” What does that mean? That simply means, “Here’s your work permit. We’re paroling you. We’re setting you aside until another day.” And we said, “There are four million American citizen children, four million, who have one or two — or one or both of their parents that are undocumented. Mr. President, your administration has deported 400,000 people, nearly a million since you got elected. And the impact is incredible upon American citizen children and families. Gangbangers, drug dealers, those that do harm? We get that. And we get the administration’s effort to deport and rid our society and country. But Mr. President, the problem is that the majority of people being deported are just working in the fields, washing dishes, doing jobs, and they’re parents of American citizens. Certainly we can find a more humane, a more practical way of carrying out this enforcement.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve been going all around the country, not just on this new tour, but you’ve been going around the country now for several years holding town hall meetings, trying to deal with these enormous raids that have been occurring, immigration raids by both federal and local authorities in different parts of the country. Can you talk about what you’re hearing from the people you talk to?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Sure. And here’s what I’m hearing. It doesn’t matter, Juan, where I go. There are children who have lost their mom, who have lost their dad — many broken families, simply because we don’t fix our immigration system. I keep meeting with class valedictorians. Juan, 65,000 young people are going to graduate without documents, many of them class valedictorians, accepted into some of our finest institutions. They’re the best and the brightest. And you know what? They’re Americans in everything but a piece of paper. The pledge allegiance to the same flag. They love this country. It’s the only country they know. And the administration continues to threaten them with deportation. We should stop that, tell the Congress that. And those are the stories.

But I’d like to share two particular ones, Juan. New Jersey, American citizen — American citizen — served in Vietnam, marries the love of his life, has three children. And then they deport — they put an order of deportation against his wife while he’s dying of cancer.

I go to — back to California, out to Oxnard, and I meet this woman. She’s now a permanent resident. But when her husband applied for permanent residency for her, they said she had to go back 10 years to Puerto Rico — I mean, I’m sorry, back to Mexico for 10 years. And you want to know something, Juan, what happened? What happened was, the separation was so devastating to that American citizen husband of hers that he committed suicide.

Look, this has tragic, tragic and devastating effects on families. And what we’re asking the President to do is — we get the part about criminals. But there are a lot of good people one step away from regularizing or legalizing their status in the United States. We should have a new policy for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you wrote in the New York Daily News_, in you dream.html”>column yesterday, about the significance of President Obama in El Paso, the significance of El Paso.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, yes. Well, El Paso is probably the largest U.S. city with the biggest Latino population. There are about 660,000 people, 80 percent Latino. It is the most Latino major city in America. And it’s also one of the safest. I think Sylvestre Reyes, the congressman there, said that there were five murders in El Paso all of last year, far less than in John Boehner’s home town of Dayton, Ohio, where there were, I think, 44 murders, even though the population of Dayton is only about 140,000. Reyes made the point, because the Republicans have been talking about crime also among immigrants, that all of the border cities of Texas combined have had less of a murder rate than the city of Dayton, Ohio. And yet, there is still this myth of the crime wave that accompanies the continued expansion or the growth of illegal immigration in the United States.

How do you respond, though, Luis, to those who say that these people who are here undocumented have broken the law, and they are basically lawbreakers that must all be deported?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Right, well, look, many of them have been here 10, 15, 20 years. They have roots in the communities in which they live. They have American citizen children. They have businesses, and they’ve already established. Look, Juan, I get the point. But the fact is, we’re all co-conspirators, right? We’ve all been participants. The economy has thrived on the back of their labor. And now we want to say, 20 years later, we should have done this 20 years ago. The fact is that America has the largest guest worker program in the world. It’s the millions of undocumented workers. Anyone — I challenge anyone to tell me they haven’t sat in a restaurant, and when that door opens and swings open, and you see that Latino face back there washing the dishes, you don’t get up and say, “I’m not eating here.” You’ve seen Maria making your bed, whether you’re getting to the hotel at the end of the day or waking up first thing in the morning. You don’t stop resting in that hotel. You know who picks the fruits, and you know who picks the vegetables in all our fields across this country. You don’t stop eating vegetables and fruits and buying them at the grocery store. We’ve all been participants in this exploitation of this working group of people in the United States of America.

And look, all I’m saying is, I understand that they broke the law. But here’s what I say. Hey, if I don’t put a quarter in their parking meter, I get a parking ticket. If I don’t pay my bill on time, they give me a fine and say, “Hey, Gutierrez, here’s your late charge.” They don’t use such draconian measures as destroy my family. And so, what we’re saying is, punish them, but make sure that the punishment has some relationship and correlation with what you believe they’ve done wrong. So we say, have them pay a fine. Make them go to the back of the line. Set them up in a program where they work seven or eight years, pay their taxes, learn English, show us that they want to integrate themselves fully into the fabric of our society. That’s a kind of punishment that helps preserve families, helps preserve the integrity of our economy, which they are essential to, and at the same time shows some fairness and some balance, in terms —

There was no way for them to come legally to the United States. And our broken immigration system says, “Come on, husband, you can come, but leave your wife behind. Come on, couple, you can come, but leave your kids behind.” It’s a system which almost says, “Break the system, so you can have your family together.” Look, we understand that. The demand, however, Juan, came from businesses in the United States for their labor. That demand was what attracted them to America. We shouldn’t now turn our back on people who have spent sometimes decades here in this country and — you know what? — are good for America.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Gutierrez, how do you respond to some who criticize the DREAM Act — like Camilo Mejía, who served in Iraq and then refused to return and was imprisoned for about a year; he’s with Iraq Vets Against the War — who say that the military option in the DREAM Act, you know, that path that if you join the military you could get permanent residency on a path to citizenship, is a funnel for poor, undocumented youth to have to serve in order to have a chance to stay here?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Sure. Let me respond two ways. First of all, obviously, I didn’t draft the bill, when I drafted a DREAM Act option, so I understand that. I understand that argument. But young men and women in America, Latino youth, want to join the military. I’ve met them. They love this country, and it’s what their chosen vocation is. So that’s an option for them to take. I understand that poverty and socioeconomic conditions may drive them there, but they have also the option, the very clearly established option, of going to school. And most of them are taking that option.

So, it’s like a constituency, like any other. When young men and women come to us here in the Congress and say, “I want these two options in a bill, so that I can define my future,” I think we need to be respectful of that youth, which has, you know, been carrying a big load of this fight for immigration reform. So I want to be respectful of their desires and the options, which they have put on the table, which they have happily championed across this country. Many of them do want to join. Many of them are very patriotic. And I think it’s a great counterbalance to those who say that they’re simply here and somehow they’re suspect people in our society. No. You want to know something? A lot of them love the United States and don’t want to join the military simply as an economic option, but because they love this country. I’ve met them.

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