Congressman discusses US immigration policy reform

By Taylor Odisho

U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Chicago, was the first Latino elected into Congress from the Midwest. He came to Gregory Hall on Tuesday to talk to hundreds of attendees about his views on immigration reform and to promote his memoir, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.”

“Barrio” means neighborhood in Spanish. Gutierrez was born in Chicago in 1953 and was raised in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. After his first year in high school, his family moved to Puerto Rico, but Gutierrez eventually returned to Chicago to earn a bachelor’s degree in English from Northeastern Illinois University. After he graduated, he married his wife, Soraida.

During college, and for some time afterwards, Gutierrez worked odd jobs to make ends meet, including taxi cab driving, cutting pig innards and sweeping the floor of an unsuccessful restaurant.

“If you would’ve seen me, you wouldn’t have seen somebody who would be sitting across the table from the president in the Oval Office,” Gutierrez said.

After working these jobs, Gutierrez worked as a Chicago Public School teacher and then at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He and his wife eventually saved enough money to buy a “bungalow,” they had a daughter and he was happy.

He described how he used to watch “Mork & Mindy.” He attend weddings, baptisms and birthdays, and he spent time with his family on the weekends. He had a small family and, as Gutierrez said, “life was good.”

Gutierrez’s passions changed the day someone knocked on his door to promote mayoral candidate Bernard Epton under the slogan, “before it’s too late.” Epton was running against Harold Washington, an African American politician. Epton lost, and Washington went on to be the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

“I’m always happy about those guys that showed up at my door with that racist attitude,” Gutierrez said.

After that day, Gutierrez made a vow to stay connected to his community, and once he made that connection, he said there was a constant revolution. He worked under Mayor Washington and eventually became a member of Chicago City Council. From there, he ran for Congress.

Gutierrez has written his memoir to show readers his journey to where he is today. 

“I thought it was a story worth telling so that people could say, ‘I’ll be able to do lots of stuff — look where Luis was at,’” said Gutierrez. “I’m not Daley. I’m not Kennedy. I’m not Rockefeller. Yet, I made it as a politician.”

Mirelsie Velazquez, visiting lecturer of Latina/Latino studies, has watched Gutierrez progress into the leader he is today since she was 8 years old. Her mother volunteered for Gutierrez during the ‘80s when he ran for alderman in Chicago.

Velazquez said she thinks Gutierrez’s memoir title is perfect because it describes how he sees himself as a politician and how the community sees him as not only a politician, but also as a person.

Velazquez said she believes Gutierrez, as a politician, is someone who has “lent himself to the cause.” Velazquez talked about Gutierrez’s involvement in ending operation of the military installations on the Puerto Rican island, Vieques in 2000.

“Even though he could be seen as an outsider, he’s still very much tied to that history as someone who’s from Puerto Rican descent,” Velazquez said. “He saw how an issue like the U.S. bombing the small little island, how that trickles down and affects other communities across the United States.”

Gutierrez has participated and been arrested multiple times during protests in Puerto Rico and outside of the White House; one protest occurred after President Barack Obama deported one million immigrants. Gutierrez also works to protect and expand workers’ rights among many other issues.

In regards to sometimes going against Obama’s beliefs, Gutierrez read from his book, “Sometimes you can’t be subtle with powerful people.”

“Don’t lose the privilege of using that power and privilege to take people on,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez lends himself not only to immigration reform, labor reform and environmental issues, but also to helping the community by staying connected with the people in the community.

During his presentation, Gutierrez read two excerpts from his memoir, which he said “will make you laugh, and it will also make you cry.” He also took questions from the audience and signed books afterward.

Emmanuel Salazar, senior in LAS and student outreach coordinator for the department of Latina/Latino Studies, helped coordinate the event. Salazar looks forward to Gutierrez’s future work in pushing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, of which Gutierrez is a co-sponsor in the House.

“I’ve had friends who couldn’t go to college because of their immigrant status, and this act has given them a little hope to actually be able to attend a university,” Salazar said. “Every time they visit me, they say ‘I wish I could go here.’ They all have the grades and everything, just no financial backing or things like that.”

After immigration reform, Gutierrez said the biggest challenge for the United States is going to be “preparing the youth to take advantage of the opportunities and to meet the challenges of the future.”

“Many times, I fear we are not (prepared). I see the high dropout rate. And I see the high rate of incarceration. And I see the high lack of skill sets,” Gutierrez said.

He believes this challenge can be met by promoting the youth to get a college education. His father advised him to study English because “there’s always a job teaching English.” But Gutierrez advises students today to study computer science and technology.

Alicia Rodriguez, academic advisor and administrative coordinator for the department of Latina/Latino Studies, has goals of her own in mind for Gutierrez and his future in politics.

“The hope is that he will work, he will be one of the leaders in legislating a really effective immigration reform policy,” Rodriguez said. “He’s the most knowledgable, he’s the most passionate, he really takes a nuance understanding of immigration issues, and I think he would be the best to be a leader.”

Taylor can be reached at [email protected]