Being the first Latino from the Midwest to be elected to Congress, delegating from Illinois’ fourth district for 10 years now, and arrested four times, Representative Luis Gutierrez knows what groundbreaking leadership is all about.
A great deal of buzz surrounding the Congressman’s recent involvement in immigration rallies and protests at major U.S. cities has been circulating since 2010 when Frank Sharry, director of advocacy group America’s Voice, made the following controversial statement: “He’s as close as the Latino community has to a Martin Luther King figure.”
Fox News analyst Juan Williams included the statement in a blog for website The Hill in December of last year praising Gutierrez as his “Congressman of the Year” for using his voice to “speak for millions of immigrants in America.”
Although Rep. Gutierrez carries the torch as one of the leading voices for immigration reform, Douglas Rivlin, Gutierrez’s Director of Communications, says in response to Sharry’s comment, “It is very flattering…the Congressman found it flattering. It’s a lot to live up to. Martin Luther King was a member of the clergy and a scholar though; he wasn’t a member of Congress. The movements are different.”
Included in Williams’ blog was another similarity the Congressman has with Dr. King—his involvement in Birmingham, Alabama. In October, Gutierrez led a delegation of House members to a protest of the new Alabama immigration laws. The protest took place in front of the church where four black schoolgirls were killed in a fire during the Civil Rights movement when King’s leadership played a vital role.
Rivlin adds, “By going to Alabama we are prioritizing serious criminals, and deprioritizing families, DREAM Act students and others with deep roots in the U.S. who are assets to this country.”
Just as King was arrested for his involvement in protests, two of Gutierrez’s four arrests have been in non-violent protests for immigration reform. The controversy immigration reform is causing in the U.S. bears close resemblance to the controversy the Civil Rights struggle caused during King’s time.
The Latino civil rights organization The National Council of La Raza’s Director of Immigration and National Campaigns Clarissa Martinez says about the Congressman, “He represents the soul of the Latino community in the nation. He honors the legacy of Martin Luther King.”
Local activists have also worked with Gutierrez on his efforts to advance immigration reform.
Cesar Espinosa, Executive Director of Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha, admits that he is hoping Gutierrez makes a presidential run and would like to help with the campaign.
Espinosa has hosted the congressman at immigration events here in Houston and has worked with Gutierrez several times on civil rights campaigns.
Though Gutierrez is popular among activists, he is relatively unknown to the general Latino community.
“I only learned about Luis Gutierrez two months ago while in class, and I admire his work. He’s just not close to being the same transformational figure Dr. King was. While Gutierrez has definitely made an impact, he hasn’t altered the conscience of the nation like Martin Luther King. The majority of my friends haven’t heard of him. ” said Nohemy Balboa, a San Jacinto Community College student who hopes to minor in Mexican-American studies when she transfers to a university.
While comparisons between the historic civil rights leader and Gutierrez maybe premature, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “I have dream” still ring true for thousands of illegal immigrants in the U.S., and the congressman is working for that dream to become a reality.
“Uncertainty and fear and ignorance about immigrants, about people who are different, has a history as old as our Nation,” said Gutierrez as he advocated for immigration reform in congress.