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Rep. Luis Gutiérrez: In Obama Deportation Move, Long-Term Immigration Activism “Has Been Rewarded”

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In a major policy move, the Obama administration has halted the deportations of some undocumented youth. Under the administration’s plan, immigrants who meet certain requirements will not be deported if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30. We speak with one of the key lawmakers dealing with immigration reform today: Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Task Force. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a major policy move, President Obama announced Friday that his administration will stop deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth whose parents brought them to the United States. The news came a day after undocumented activists occupied four Obama campaign offices around the country earlier in the week. Now more than 800,000 current and former students are immune from deportation, at least for now. President Obama spoke Friday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These are young people who study in our schools. They play in our neighborhoods. They’re friends with our kids. They pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one—on paper. Now, let’s be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Obama’s decision bypasses Congress and partially achieves the goals of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth. Under the administration’s plan, immigrants who meet certain requirements will not be deported if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30. They must have lived in the country for at least five continuous years; have no criminal history; and graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. Those deemed eligible will be able to apply for a work permit good for two years, with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.

Many immigrants welcomed the news. Justino Mora is an undocumented student at the University of California, Los Angeles.

JUSTINO MORA: [translated] It is excellent news. It brings a lot of happiness for a lot of immigrant families and students that desire to continue their education and want to contribute to the economy and their communities. They want to search for the opportunity to move forward with their studies. This is a step in the right direction, to legalize people who live in this country without documents. We want to tell President Obama that we’re happy, but he needs to continue to implement federal laws.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on President Obama’s decision, we’re joined by one of the key lawmakers dealing with immigration reform today: Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois, chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He’s joining us on the phone from his district in Chicago.

Congressmember Gutiérrez, your reaction to Friday’s announcement by President Obama?

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Well, to say I’m delighted is an understatement. Eight hundred thousand young people, in approximately two months—that’s 60 days from now—will be able to affirmatively gain access to a program. That is to say, up 'til now, under the discretionary prosecutorial memorandum that was issued last year by President Obama and his administration, if you were a DREAMer, you had to be caught by ICE, by Immigration Control and Enforcement, and then you could appeal for discretion, and indeed—let's be—let’s be real clear—in the immense majority of the cases, you were granted relief—that is, you were not deported. So, that part of the process was already in place. What is different about it is that we kept saying we needed an affirmative program, that is, where young people who qualify for the DREAM Act could go to a government office and say, “Hey, I got here before I was 16. I came as a child. I graduated from high school. I want to go to college,” or, “I got my GED. I want to serve in the armed forces. I’d like a work permit. I’d like you to stop my deportation until the Congress of the United States passes it.”

And, you know, Juan is absolutely right in reporting that this did go around the legislative process. That’s only to a certain degree true, because let’s remember that we led the fight in November of 2010 and passed the DREAM Act in—216 to 198 in the House. And indeed, we got 51 Democratic senators and four Republicans the next month, except that wasn’t enough. It was 60 votes. So, if you look, what Obama is doing is a reflection of the stated will of both the House and the Senate, and indeed the majority of people that live in the United States of America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Luis, in terms of why the president decided to do this at this time, your sense of the pressures on him? I know you have been advocating greater use of his executive authority now for a couple of years, but obviously there were all the DREAMers themselves protesting in Obama campaign offices, and there was the whole issue of Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, beginning to try to craft his own form of some kind of relief for the DREAMers. Do you think all these things combined led him to do it now, or something else?

REP. LUIS GUTIÉRREZ: Sure. And, you know, Juan, success has many—has many, many fathers, right, or parents. And so, this is a wonderful opportunity for us to now say, “OK, let’s bring all of those people together, and let’s get the job done.” Look, the young activist students, undocumented, did a wonderful job through their activism, through their courage, through their creativity, and they should be applauded. I know—I know what Senator Durbin did. I know what Senator Bob Menendez did. I know the—I know the immense pressure that they put on this administration and the risk that they take. I know what—I’m really proud to be a member of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus on Friday, because you know what? When we couldn’t pass the DREAM Act, because there were five senators who wouldn’t vote for closure back in December of 2010, we went to see the president a couple of days before Christmas in 2010, and we said, “We need to do something from an executive level.” The president agreed to do that. We had to take on our own president of our own party, somebody who we wish nothing but—I mean, he’s the leader, right? And we had to push our leader. We had to push him hard to get this done. And so, I’m really, really delighted, because each and every time we kept going back, and we did it quietly, but we did it in a meaningful, consecutive manner, so that—look, it’s a great victory for many people, but I just want to put everything in a little perspective. This is the Barack Obama we voted for. We’re happy that he is our leader and our champion. We want to continue to work with him and redouble our efforts so that we can expand relief and we can expand justice.

Eight hundred thousand is a little less than 10 percent of the undocumented community. There are—during the last four years, over a quarter of a million American citizen children—American citizen children—have lost their parents due to deportation, not because their parents—we need to continue to look for ways in which to seek relief, because—it was a great victory last Friday, but we need to understand—this morning, I’m going to a meeting with the LGBT community, in a few minutes, when we finish this conversation, and what we’re going to talk about is immigration policy and how it is we keep those families together. So, great victory, great beginning, wonderful students. Their activism has been rewarded. Their creativity has been rewarded. And our Democratic Party is beginning to reflect the values and its traditions, given the actions of the president.

So, all in all, it’s a great—and look, Senator Rubio, I was happy and delighted. When he brought the proposal forward, there were two reactions. There was kind of that visceral, right, reactionist “who’s this guy who campaigned on—that this was amnesty, and they should just self-deport,” and said, “We shouldn’t vote for the DREAM Act.” That was—that was Rubio. But you know what? I said, “He’s coming with a new idea. Let’s sit down and discuss it with him.” I hope that now Senator Rubio will say, “You know? Good move on part of the president of the United States.” That isn’t what he said last Friday. He criticized the president’s decision. I find that a little ironic, that somebody who proposes legislation to stop the deportation of young DREAM students doesn’t say, “Wow! Thank you very much. Now you’re going to give me the opportunity to work legislatively towards a permanent solution, while I know that none of them are being deported.” So, I think you’re going to have to see.

And then we have, like, you know, this is also, from a pretty political point of view, great. But my point of view, this is good, because it gives two clearly contrasting—Mitt Romney says they should self—all immigrants should self-deport. He said he would veto the DREAM Act if it came to his desk. He says that the Obama—he says that Arizona and its—and 1070 should be the model for the nation. You juxtapose that to somebody who said, “You know what? I’m going to use the power of the presidency to take a group of people and take executive action so that they’re not deported, so that they’re not hurt, until the Congress of the United States does their job.” That’s the real juxtaposition that I see we have here. They asked Romney several times yesterday on the news stations, “What do you think? Will you, as president of the United States, continue this very action that the president has taken on Friday?” He wouldn’t say yes. So I think this—it’s really clear that there are people who want to play games with the immigration issue. And what President Barack Obama has basically done is said, “OK, here’s something I’ve done. Take a side. Tell me what you would do differently.” And I think that really gives our immigrant community an opportunity to be able to judge better. So this is the president we elected. And I cannot tell you how happy I am.

And what’s going to be interesting, Juan and Amy, is that in about 60 days, when the 800,000 undocumented immigrants, some of them 29 years of age, are able to go to a government office, what you’re going to see is lines, tens of thousands of people. It’s going to be—to me, a line of 10,000—of tens of thousands of people applying for a work permit and being safe in America is like the best example of democracy. All right? It’s like saying, “Come on down, and we’re going to give you the kind of government documentation that’s going to free you from the fear that you live in, and it’s going to allow you to go out there and work and get a driver’s license and continue on with your life, until the legislative branch of government.” I think that’s justice, and I think that’s democracy. And I can’t wait to see those lines, because I’m going to be in those lines making sure that all the documents are filled out appropriately.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez, we want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from his district in Illinois, in Chicago. He’s chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. When we come back, we’ll speak to two DREAM Act activists. One will benefit by President Obama’s announcement, and another—well, he’s just over the age limit, but he came out in the pages of the New York Times as what he calls an “undocumented American.” Stay with us.

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