MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now to what many consider a crisis happening closer to home. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, along with labor and immigration activists was arrested in front of the White House last week to call attention to the hundreds of thousands of people who've been deported since President Obama's election. More people have been deported under this administration than any other.
Representative Gutierrez, who is serving his 10th term representing the 4th congressional district in the president's home state of Illinois, is outspoken on a number of issues, but most recently he's been pushing his colleagues to pass the so-called Dream Act that would open a path to citizenship for some young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
And Congressman Luis Gutierrez joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Congressman, welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.
Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ: Pleasure to be with you today.
MARTIN: So, why did you decide to get arrested? Why did you feel a need to take that step?
GUTIERREZ: One million people deported. Many, many, many of whom never been involved with our criminal justice system. Four million American citizen children who have one or both parents that are undocumented, being left behind each and every day because we have Specialist Nunez here in Chicago, whose wife was deported back to Mexico while he received orders to serve our country in Afghanistan.
Because our immigration system is broken and the president, quite frankly, knows better and should have not only a better understanding, but a more compassionate treatment. I understand gang bangers and drug dealers and rapists and murderers and people who are bad, who come to the United States of America. I'm happy to put more resources so that we can rid ourselves of them. But that's not the Windex-wielding, cleaning lady at two in the morning that they're deporting.
MARTIN: Sure. Well, let me just talk to you about this for a minute, if you would. 'Cause you and the president had an exchange of letters over this. And the president sent you a letter last week, which in response to your arrest and your other advocacy around this point. And he says, and his administration says that what they have done is shift the priority to those who are either - three categories: people who have committed serious offenses; you say you agree with that. People who are repeat offenders, which is to say people who have repeatedly violated the immigration laws. And also people who have recently arrived.
And thus his argument would be that he's not, in fact, disrupting families and so forth. What accounts for this difference of perspective on this?
GUTIERREZ: Well, number one, if today I decided I was going to change my behavior and I said, oh, by the way, for the last week here's how I've done it, I could say I've changed statistically how things are being done. So there's no doubt in my mind that they're attempting. But even as of yet, the fact is that most people deported from the United States of America, although they claim it, it's just not true.
I sat with the president in May at the White House and he said to me, well, Luis, I guess you're talking about people - you're saying we should go after - I get that that we should go after the really, truly bad people. We are going to improve that system. So he didn't say to me, oh, Luis, you're wrong. He said, we're going to improve this. And so it's a recognition throughout the Obama administration.
OK. So, Illinois, Governor Quinn says no to Secure Communities, the very program which is creating so many - so when you get arrested by a police officer, your name - your fingerprints go over to the Department of Homeland Security and they go, oh, you're undocumented, boom. You go through a deportation system.
But you know that I'm a woman, I'm calling because I'm being abused by my husband. And my husband simply tells the police officer, oh, guess what, you have an immigration issue here, a much greater - and that's what - and the woman gets deported. And yet she didn't commit a crime. She just was revealed to authorities.
MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, Mr. Gutierrez. But, you know, two points - and we only have about three minutes left. I'm sorry. I appreciate your trying to work with me here.
MARTIN: On the one hand there are those who would say that immigration violation is a crime. So therefore people should be deported. On the other hand, the president is also saying that the Department of Homeland Security does have the authority to make case by case decisions to grant relief to individuals in the circumstances that you just described where a person is being abused, but that it's not appropriate to use this authority in a categorical way to protect, you know, students or any other group of people. So what do you say to that?
GUTIERREZ: Well, since we have such little time, three things. Number one, 22 U.S. senators, including Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Durbin, the senator from the state of Illinois, a very close friend of Barack Obama, sent him an open letter 10 weeks ago saying, use your discretionary authority and stop the deportation of young people who came here at a tender three, four, five, six - the dream kids. Just stop them. Defer them and set them aside. So I'm not alone in this. That's about justice and fairness.
MARTIN: Do you think he can use that authority categorically to protect a certain class of people? Do you think he can?
GUTIERREZ: We know he can to the point that Lamar Smith has the Halt Act, which would take away that discretionary power away from him 'cause he fears he might use it. Number one.
Number two. When I met with the president last December, he said, Luis, we will not have any progress on immigration reform until after I'm reelected President of the United States. Now, that's what he told me in December, yet that letter that you have and that you're sharing with the public that he sent back to me - it ends - that letter ends by saying, hey, Luis, why don't you go do your job and use that moral authority and energy you got to go get the Congress of the United States to act.
Well, he told me that was futile. He told me that last December. He knows that that's a road that isn't going to lead to success. So why would he suggest that I use an opportunity which he knows doesn't exist. And the last thing is, he was at National Council of La Raza last week Monday to give a speech. But I would just like to - 'cause I think it's important - why does Luis Gutierrez and others make this demand? Because in the summer of 2008, he said, and I'm going to quote him almost exactly, right?
When ICE raids terrorize communities, tearing babies from their mother's arms and having children arrive home from school to find their parents missing, when all these things are happening, it's time for a change. He called the raids - and as you have suggested earlier, there are more deportations under his administration and more raids. So does the terrorism continue?
MARTIN: Well, I don't know about the raids, Mr. Gutierrez. Forgive me, we can attest to the number of deportations. But we can't attest to the raids per say. So but I do take your point, I do take your point on that.
Well, finally, what is your assessment of this as a person? And we only have about a minute left. But as you're a person who's working in the same environment that he is in, you're in the Congress, you passed this bruising fight over the budget and the debt ceiling. People had to make some tough votes there. What is your assessment of whether it's possible to actually make more progress right now?
GUTIERREZ: I agree with the president when he said that last December to me. I agreed with him then. And I would just like to say for two years he said to our community, I will make this a top priority. I want to get this past the first year of my administration. And yet the first two years of his administration, when we had 60, then 58 U.S. senators and we had 50 plus in the House of Representatives, not one initiative was taken in order to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.
So the opportunity was missed. It's not there. But he can use his power, the discretionary power of the president to bring out fairness and justice and equity in these cases.
MARTIN: Congressman Luis Gutierrez represents the 4th congressional district of Illinois. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Congressman Gutierrez, I hope we'll speak again. Thank you so much for joining us.
GUTIERREZ: Look forward to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.