HARRISONBURG, Va. -- August is typically a slower time for members of Congress, who escape the bustle of the nation’s capital for the comforts of home. That’s not so for Luis Gutiérrez.
On Thursday, the Chicago lawmaker hopped out of a car here outside the courthouse in Harrisonburg, Va., which sits 130 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. He’s at his third town-hall style event in the last two days.
The goal: to push Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
This event has more of a bite to it than some of the others he’s held. It’s in the district of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key player in the immigration debate. Pro-reform advocates have leaned on Goodlatte for months to back reform. But last week, he spoke out against a “special pathway to citizenship.” Gutiérrez (D) is hoping that some gentle pressure will cause the Virginia Republican to change his tune.
“If you came here to listen to me say bad things about Chairman Goodlatte, you came to the wrong meeting,” he told a mostly-Latino crowd that numbered over 200, according to organizers.
But Gutiérrez blasted House GOP leaders for saying they won’t bring an immigration bill to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of a majority of Republican members.
“[That] fundamentally undermines democracy,” he said. “There are 40 to 50 Republicans who are ready to join Democrats and independents to vote. We are here to say: allow the vote.”
The motive for Gutiérrez is clear. As the de facto leader of pro-immigration reform Democrats, he wants to make it dangerous for Goodlatte and other GOP leaders to continue to oppose a full path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Over the past three months, he’s visited over half a dozen states to headline immigration rallies: Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, New York, and in the last two days, Minnesota and Virginia.
Goodlatte’s district covers a large swath of rural western and central Virginia, and the overall population is only four percent Hispanic. But the city of Harrisonburg is over 17 percent Hispanic and is home to some deep-rooted immigrant communities. Organizers encouraged attendees to text and call Goodlatte’s office, even sticking the phone number on water bottles. Citizens were urged to sign up to vote.
"What clearer referendum did we have on Nov. 6 than we did on immigration?" Gutiérrez told reporters before the event, citing GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s hardline position on undocumented immigrants.
Delmis Aceiduno, a Honduran immigrant and mother of three who has lived in Harrisonburg for 14 years, was not so optimistic about immigration reform’s prospects before the rally. But she was afterward.
“I think Goodlatte will listen,” she said.
At the same time, Gutiérrez does not want to steamroll Republican members with vitriolic rhetoric and kill any potential of a future immigration deal in the House. The Democrat repeatedly insisted his intention was not to antagonize Goodlatte, who was invited to the event but declined to attend, citing scheduling conflicts.
"I would have hoped he could find time to be here,” Gutiérrez said. “I want to understand [his opposition to a ‘special pathway’], I don't want to reject it. Any avenue which leads us to resolve the problem."