In a fiery speech at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he was confident after meeting with President Obama last week that the president will move forward in the coming months with an executive order that would grant legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally, possibly including the parents of American-born children.
Gutierrez, speaking on the first day of the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, also took aim at Republicans for failing to pass immigration reform legislation and warned that there would be a political price to pay. He chastised the harsh rhetoric in conservative corners against a surge of tens of thousands of Central American youths who illegally crossed the Southwestern border in recent months fleeing violence in their home countries.
"We sat down with the president of the United States and we said to him, 'Mr. President, we want you to be as generous and broad and wise as the Republicans have been small and mean-spirited,'" said Gutierrez, who has long been an outspoken advocate of immigration reform on the national stage. He said the president's response was positive.
Obama has said before that he's convinced House Republicans will not take action to reform immigration laws this year and vowed to use his executive authority to "fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress." Republicans have countered that this will only make existing border problems worse.
Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city would help shelter immigrant children who have been detained after crossing the border. But in other cities and towns across the country, including in California, pitched protests have erupted over plans to temporarily house the children.
This month, Homeland Security buses carrying children and families had to be re-routed to a facility in San Diego after protesters waving American flags blocked the convoy in the Riverside County city of Murrieta. A plan to house Central American children in a shuttered school in Lawrenceville, Va., was scuttled after another angry protest, and in Vassar, Mich., several dozen demonstrators, some carrying rifles and handguns, showed up to block plans for a similar facility there.
"We need to ask ourselves who we are as Americans in moments like this when we see hateful images," Garcetti said in a speech at the weekend conference. "As parents, how do we respond to children who we see with fear in their eyes, doing the most elemental thing that any one of us would do: try to find their parents?"
Though Republicans have criticized Obama for not doing enough to stem the surge of immigrant children, the administration has sought to hammer home a message that those crossing the border illegally will be sent back. Justice Department officials have announced plans to speed up court proceedings for unaccompanied youths and families, whose influx across the border threatens to paralyze an already sluggish court system. During a congressional hearing in the border city of McAllen, Texas, Republican leaders, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said the best response to the "humanitarian crisis" was to deport the Central American children back home as quickly as possible.
"We are a country of laws. We have to respect those laws, and if we do not today clearly send a message that you cannot come to the United States" illegally, Perry said, "then this is going to get worse."
Perry said a discussion on stalled immigration reform legislation would not happen until the border is secured, and warned about increasing anger in communities about the recent surge in illegal crossings.
A new Pew Research survey found Obama gets low ratings for his handling of the influx: A slight majority of respondents, 53%, said the legal process for dealing with Central American children should be sped up, even if it meant that some who might qualify for asylum would be deported. But 68% of people surveyed supported a "broad revamp" of the immigration system to allow some of the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally to obtain legal status if they met certain requirements.
Although Latinos overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, the president has been sharply criticized for historically high numbers of deportations under his administration.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, once referred to Obama as the "deporter in chief." But on Saturday participants said they were heartened by what they were hearing from the president. Gutierrez said that when he and members of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus met with Obama, he told the president, "You are our last hope for fairness and justice."
"The president has to act," Gutierrez said. "And I believe the president will act."
Switching between English and Spanish, Gutierrez also warned Republicans about the consequences of the often harsh rhetoric over the recent influx of immigrant children. He invoked the experience of California, which became a solidly Democratic state after former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson successfully pushed for Proposition 187, a 1994 voter-approved ballot measure that would have denied health and education benefits to those here illegally but was later overturned by the federal courts. Wilson's move has been cited as a major reason for a surge in the number of Latinos becoming reliably Democratic voters.
"We need to raise our voices, make ourselves citizens, sign up to vote and punish those who speak ill and criminalize children who come to our border," Gutierrez said in Spanish to rousing cheers.