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."
Gutiérrez has been part of a bipartisan working group drafting a comprehensive immigration bill in the House. The group of Republicans and Democrats has met for over four years, but still has not made its product public. And it was easy to sense that Gutiérrez is growing impatient.
"I was hopeful that we would be in a better place today,” he said to reporters. “The legislation that the Republicans have put forward thus far is partisan. There is no Democratic support for it.”
The congressman pointed out that diverse interests, such as business and labor and Senate Republicans and Democrats, have come to an agreement over core elements of reform. It should not be so hard for the House, he said.
“I am going to continue to work with Republicans,” Gutiérrez added. “I'm not here advocating for a Democratic solution. I have even criticized many components of the Senate bill. Why? To demonstrate to everybody that people gave, and gave a lot. Everybody's got to reach a place where we can do the work."
He says his end goal is to see reform passed, not to score political points using the issue in the next election.
“We're going to reach 2 million people in a couple of months. That's the legacy of the last five years: unprecedented deportations in the United States of America,” he said. “And so I have come here not to criticize Mr. Goodlatte, I wish he was here. I've criticized my own president."
To do that, Gutiérrez is mobilizing Latino and immigrant groups around the country to keep up the pressure, even though reform faces hazy prospects in the House.
"Our movement for comprehensive immigration reform needs to remain steady," Gutierrez said. "I think one of the problems is that Congress isn't hearing enough from the American people," he continued.
"We need people power."