Drowned out by 1,000 and more voices chanting "Viva Luis Gutierrez" and "Tu Puedes, Luis" (you can do it, Luis), the Representative from Illinois of Puerto Rican descent got up to the podium at Our Lady of Angels Church, better known as La Placita, to lift the spirits of a peoples pummeled through the ages, and to point his finger at the Obama administration's lukewarm forging of a road ahead to overhaul the nation's broken immigration system.
He did so in an earnest fashion, typical of him. He did so, red faced and passionate, addressing the crowd in the beautiful Boricua lexicon, fully aware his words were drops of water in a desert of hope. Immigrant families, their children, men and women, students, immigration rights advocates, faith leaders, and union members all watched in awe and welcomed the immigration reform champion to the city's oldest Catholic house of prayer.
Rep. Gutierrez arrived heaven-sent to Los Angeles this week, invited by the venerable labor leader, Maria Elena Durazo, to speak to their annual congress about labor laws and workers' rights. He took time off to talk about immigration reform to hundreds of advocates who came from all over the state bearing hundreds of difficult questions. He addressed the possible timeline ("If by April we have not introduced something, we will not have reform in 2010"). He spoke of challenges ahead ("It will be difficult, no doubt about it. But to those who oppose my plan, let them propose a better one"). And, he called upon the White House to humanize the immigrant plight ("We are illegals when it's convenient. We are criminals when it's not an election. We are human beings, and we cannot let them forget it.").
The Congressman was not bluffing when he warned that our community risks bitterness and apathy after so much disillusionment and deadlines past. During the nationally-syndicated El Piolin por la Manana radio show, the legislator heard from a caller named Geovanni. "Why don't you give up, Mr. Congressman," asked the caller. "We are not wanted in this country; we are not going to get anything good from them." Rep. Gutierrez listened, breathed deeply and responded:
If my wife had given up on me whenever I did something wrong, we would not be together still after 33 years of marriage. When you love someone, you tell them they are doing wrong because you want them to be a better person. I want my president to be the best one ever. I want him to excel. We do not have the luxury of giving up, my people, we cannot let this president down. We need to tell him he's being ill advised.
The crowd at La Placita heard the same exact message, straight from the horse's mouth. The Congressman added, "my wife and I were united by love and God. No one, not even the president of the United States of America, can undo what God has made. When we say we value families, we cannot mean we value some families above others. If you love thy neighbor, we must approve immigration reform. No more family separations, no more raids." The thunderous applause echoed the sentiment and underscored the deeply felt resentment of a community in crisis. A woman sitting in the front row lifted a little girl above her head as if to say, no one will separate me from this child. No one.
Immigrant advocates everywhere have acknowledged that the window of opportunity to move past bickering and partisanship and introduce a serious immigration reform bill in the Senate is small and closing rapidly. The congressman from Illinois acknowledged this much during his visit to the City of Angels. And yet, he told the mostly Latino audience in Los Angeles that he is deeply committed to not letting one more worker suffer in silence the indignity of lower pay, sexual abuse, discrimination, racial profiling, and loss of family and country. To him, the struggle for justice and dignity for immigrants toiling our fields, serving in restaurants, fighting for our nation's freedom in Iraq or Afghanistan, or caring for our children in private homes, is one we must fight together until there is no more of it. He is energized by the 92 co-sponsors his CIR ASAP bill has garnered. But he needs more. Our nation needs more.
The prayers we all uttered in silence as Mr. Gutierrez held hands with Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, Congresswoman Chu, El Piolin, Maria Elena Durazo, Father Richard, and Angelica Salas, have kept many of us from falling. Perhaps Geovani was listening and he will make a few more attempts at dialoguing with America about why immigrants are intricately woven into the fabric of our diverse history, present, and future. Our nation's well-being is partly dependent upon building a strong foundation of fairness, level playing field for all workers, and the knowledge that indeed we are a nation of just and humane values. If you love thy neighbor, Rep. Gutierrez reminded America, let there be no more delays in passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2010. He was also telling the immigrant community not to give up on the dream and to show their love for their neighbor by taking action.
We couldn't agree more.