The Strength to Stand Alone

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez is confident immigration reform will happen.

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
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As Congress careens from crisis to crisis, it is allowing critical business to pile up. From immigration reform to education, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois says the House must tackle these issues to ensure America’s continuing economic vitality. He recently spoke with U.S. News about his new book, "Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill," and how his background equipped him to use his political career to fight for the underprivileged. Excerpts:

How has your background impacted the way you approach Washington politics?

It’s given me the strength to stand alone, to stand by my core beliefs regardless of where the president of my party is, where the Democratic caucus is, or any other of the various political party influences that many times dominate the actions of members of Congress.

How has your experience in Chicago city politics impacted the way you approach your role in Congress?

I think city councils, whether they be in Chicago or in a small town in Nebraska, are very important learning experiences for those who have the vocation for public service because you are responsible for everything that goes wrong and credited with nothing that goes right. You interact so personally with the constituents on their everyday problems and issues. It’s really a place that teaches you, and it shapes you for future public service.

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Will immigration reform ever get taken up in the House and passed by Congress?

It will. There is an indomitable spirit that exists within the immigrant community. I truly believe that there are phases and times in history where things are inevitable, and this is one of the inevitable goals for justice that this country is going to achieve. Much like for African-Americans’ civil rights or voting rights for women or the right for [members of] the LGBT community to marry whom they love, this too will come to pass.

Aside from immigration reform, what other issues must Congress prioritize?

I am really in fear of, I think, two challenges. Number 1, are we equipping our youth, preparing them to be educated in a manner in which we can fully exploit their talents and their energy? I’m worried about the educational system and whether or not it is creating the kinds of minds, the kinds of skills we’re going to need as a nation moving forward. Number 2 – apart from the health care issue in and of itself – I think [about] how we take care of ourselves and how we take care of our own personal health. I’m happy and excited to see the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. I came to Congress because I believe [health care is] a fundamental human right, and I came here to expand health care services to Americans. But I think we also personally have to begin to look at our own relationships with our bodies and what we eat, and how we stay healthy and fit as a nation. It’s about our body, and it’s about our mind.

Washington has recently been overcome by gridlock and a seeming inability to accomplish anything. What would you say to people who have lost faith in the political process?

Until the public demands bipartisanship and then goes out and votes and rewards electorally those who work across the aisle and punishes those who won’t, I think you’ll continue to see gridlock.

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How did the government shutdown affect immigrants and working Americans?

It affected working Americans because there were hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Tens of thousands of them applied for unemployment compensation. One of the things that you want your government to do is give you a sense of safety, a sense of certainty. This did none of those things. This is hurting our economy.

What will surprise readers the most about your book?

That it’s candid. It reads as though I were in your living room telling you a story. It isn’t a political memoir that is written to tell you how smart I am, but to tell you about my experiences and how they might inform you about how government works and hopefully be valuable as a tool for learning. We told you a candid, real story of a kid who grew up with nothing, whose parents came here with nothing, who gets to negotiate in the Oval Office with the president of the United States.