WASHINGTON — Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, the Illinois Democrat and immigration champion whose zealous advocacy has at times irked colleagues and presidents from his own party, exits Congress with this advice to newcomers: Pay whatever "ransom” is necessary to get immigration reform.
As Gutiérrez, 65, closes out a 26-year career in Congress, 10.7 million people are living in the United States without legal status and facing far greater obstacles to gaining it.
“For my friends on the left, remember, there’s going to be a ransom that is going to be required,” Gutiérrez said of getting a comprehensive immigration overhaul measure passed in Congress. "Pay it. It’s the right thing to do, because we’re never going to be able to overcome the 60 votes in the Senate.”
“There are people on the right that are going to want certain things," he said in an interview with NBC News. "I don’t know if we have to give them a wall … but we’re gonna have to sit down and negotiate."
Gutiérrez made his comments before the clash between Democratic leaders and President Donald Trump over the $5 billion that Trump is demanding for a wall on the southern border led to the current government shutdown.
Though he preached negotiation, Gutiérrez didn’t hold back in his last House Judiciary Committee hearing. In his usual way — some call it demagoguery — Gutiérrez told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that she held the record for lying because she sent a tweet that said the Trump administration did not have a policy of separating children from their parents at the border.
'Wasn't going to shut up'
As soon as he got to Congress in 1994, Gutiérrez was making Democratic colleagues and the president at the time, Bill Clinton, uncomfortable.
He had defied the Chicago Democratic Party establishment a decade earlier by helping Harold Washington get elected mayor, pushing back on those who were not ready to support a black candidate.
As a freshman in Congress, Gutiérrez exerted his independence and it cost him a potential seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. As he recalled, he dared to ask if freshman members could meet on their own to form their own identity in Congress.
“I guess there was a group of us that wasn’t going to shut up and be quiet and wait our turn,” he said.
Gutiérrez took up an early fight against congressional pay increases and some of the perks the members bestowed upon themselves at the time.
Were he starting out now, he said, he would fit in with some of Congress’ incoming progressive Democrats.
“So at that point it wasn’t 'Medicare for All,' right?” Gutiérrez said. “It was, 'How can you guys take a pay increase when you are asking that every other federal employee not get a pay increase?'" he recalled. "Why do you give yourself special parking? Why do you send out mailers at taxpayers’ expense?"
Years later, he was getting arrested outside the White House in protest of President Barack Obama's deportation policies, pressuring him to keep a campaign promise to get comprehensive immigration reform passed.
“I gave Obama hell and I’m not regretting it," Gutiérrez said. "I believe that what I did was the right thing to do, but I gave him hell."
He recalled that on one visit to the White House, he was in a corner of a room with the president, just the two of them.
“He says to me, he says: 'We’re both from Chicago, right? We came here to do good things, can’t you figure a way to get off my a––?’" Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez included a White House photo of the encounter in his 2013 book “Still Dreaming: My Journey From the Barrio to Capitol Hill”.
Gutiérrez said that despite their differences, he continued to respect Obama and the president continued to talk to him. He recalled one encounter that set in motion a profound change for young immigrants who were brought here as children.
In 2011, the two were headed to their home islands for Christmas vacation — Gutiérrez to Puerto Rico, and Obama to Hawaii.
“He says, ‘I want you to put your thinking cap on.’ He used exactly those words, ‘your thinking cap,’” Gutiérrez said, "and when we come back in January, I want you to give me ideas and suggestions so that I can protect the immigrant community.”
Gutiérrez said that started the movement for Obama to take executive actionthat led to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a year later.
DACA shields from deportation immigrant teens and young adults who came to or stayed in the U.S. illegally as young children and allows those immigrants to work and study.
From 'revolution' to refocusing
Gutiérrez can still deliver a fiery speech on the House floor or at a news conference, and he doesn’t hesitate to rip into President Donald Trump and Republicans either.
But he said he's tempered some of the brashness that led him to focus on congressional pay and perks.
What got him to refocus, he said, was people showing up at his office fearing deportation or with stories about being defrauded by lawyers and now being unable to bring their family as legal immigrants, he said.
“Look, you can come here and say, ‘I am the voice of the revolution and here’s what I believe and what the revolution should consist of,’” Gutiérrez said, “And then there’s people who knock on your door of your office and say to you, ‘Could you please help me make my life better by doing this?’”
“When I looked at what people were asking me to do, I said: ‘You know what, let somebody else fight against the pay increase or where the congressmen park their car or a whole slew of issues. I’m going to fight this,” he said.
After he exits Congress next month, Gutiérrez said he'll be putting his energy into his daughter Jessica’s campaign for Chicago City Council; the election is in February.
Gutiérrez has been going door to door with her and encountering some of the people he helped get their citizenship papers or whom his office helped in other ways, he said.
While he ended speculation in September by announcing that he would not run for mayor of Chicago, Gutiérrez has said that he’ll become a senior policy adviser with the National Partnership for New Americans, a group of immigrant and refugee rights groups in 37 states that help immigrants integrate into U.S. society.
Destination? Puerto Rico
Gutiérrez eventually plans to return to Puerto Rico with his wife, Soraida, and will live near San Juan so he can easily get to the airport. “I’m not leaving the body politic,” he said.
He said he wants to help build the island and live there to experience what some of its citizens are enduring.
But his Puerto Rico plans also are tied to what he hopes to accomplish in the 2020 presidential election.
“It's taken me a little longer to get to Baltimore from Puerto Rico, but there are flights …. Why do I say Baltimore? Because within 40 minutes of leaving the airport, I can be in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Kent,” he said. Or he can be in Puerto Rican communities in Pennsylvania and in Florida and other parts of the country to rally votes for the Democratic nominee.
"If those go Democrat in November of 2020,” he said, "I have a president that’s going to care about my island and love and respect the people of Puerto Rico.”
For Gutiérrez, helping make that happen is worth delaying his move to the Caribbean.