“I’m seldom accused of being too nice,” writes Rep. Luis Gutierrez in his lively new autobiography. Yet the feisty and frank Chicago Democrat has been sounding a lot like Mr. Nice Guy these days as he tries to salvage immigration reform in the GOP-controlled House.
His book, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, stirred considerable buzz for its less-than-flattering portrayal of President Barack Obama, of whom Gutierrez was an early supporter, for failing to push immigration reform during his first term as he had promised.
But on the heels of the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling showdown, the second-term president and both parties have new incentives to pass immigration reform — with less than a month left on the congressional calendar before the end of the year.
“I feel very, very optimistic,” Gutierrez told me in a phone interview between meetings on Capitol Hill. In spite of Washington’s bitter partisanship on full display in recent weeks, “quiet diplomacy” and “dialogue” about immigration reform “continued during all of that time.”
Not everybody shares his optimism. Immigration has long divided House Republicans and the rest of the Grand Old Party. Amid changing times and demographics, the party faces a dilemma over how it can polish its brand and expand its reach without losing its conservative base.
Pragmatic moderates in the GOP leadership want to fix our broken immigration system to spur economic growth and broaden the party’s ethnic diversity after last November’s presidential election loss. The only specific policy recommendation in the national party’s post-election “autopsy” called for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
But conservatives oppose anything that resembles “amnesty,” including the “pathway” to legalization and ultimately citizenship that Gutierrez and other Democrats want for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented workers.
Conservatives would rather emphasize border enforcement, even though more than half of the undocumented are estimated not to have entered over the border, but to have overstayed their visas.
The pressure is so fierce that Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio sounded this past weekend as though he was turning against the immigration bill he co-wrote and helped to persuade his fellow senators to pass in June.
In statements released by his spokesman Alex Conant, Rubio proposed a piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform instead of the comprehensive bill favored by the Senate. “(A)t this time, the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills,” the spokesman said.