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Rep. Gutierrez: I Am A Product Of The Civil Rights Movement

Rep. Luis Gutierrez at NPR's Washington DC studios.

The nation is in the 10th day of a government shutdown, and the deadline over raising the debt limit is quickly approaching. But all that might seem like a day at the park for Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). He explains why in his new memoir Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.

He speaks with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his political journey and the fight for immigration reform.

Interview Highlights

Opening the book with his house burning down in the 1980s - when he began his career as an activist - because someone threw a brick and Molotov Cocktail through his window. Nobody was arrested, but Gutierrez suspected it might have been political rivals in Chicago.

Chicago was very tense politically and also racially charged. ... When the brick came through my window, I didn't know a brick came through. I was asleep. But a gallon of gasoline is a very destructive force. And I don't go around trying to attribute who's responsible. Whoever did it, I forgave them a long time ago. My life has moved on. I'm happy. My daughter, my wife and I are fine.

Proudly getting arrested for fighting for immigration rights

I am a product of the civil rights movement. Think about it: Black people in this country don't raise up their voices. They're murdered. Their churches are bombed in Birmingham. They're lynched. I mean, think of all of the sacrifices that people went through so that we could pass a Civil Rights Act. I was born in 1953. Now I was born in Chicago, as I relate in the book. But it was a segregated city. There were swimming pools, there were beaches, there were neighborhoods you did not venture into except for risk of your life. ... So I wanted to inform people about that, and this for me is a continuation of a civil rights movement. There's 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. There are five million American citizen children whose parents are undocumented. ... So what I said on the [National] Mall: Look, I'm going to deprive myself of my freedom and my liberty, and so will others, so that someone else can be free. That is kind of the struggle of freedom. And I also want to tell people: fight and challenge the system.

Fixing America's immigration system

There are between 40 and 50 Republicans ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform. ... When we were in the majority, the Democrats, in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, we never took up the issue. ... You know why we didn't? Because a) Democrats were afraid that they were going to lose the majority if they took up the issue. My Mayor of the City of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel, who headed up the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], said it's the third rail of politics. We didn't do it. We're ready to do it. I'm happy that Democrats have come around, and that we've gained exposure to Republicans.

I think it gets fixed in this Congress. Nothing's going to happen right now. I understand that. But there are conversations today. There were conversations yesterday. And there are conversations planned for tomorrow in preparation among those of us that want to get this done for that moment. So when the light - when we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we'll be ready to move forward.

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