Interview with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, 2015 Asset Builder Champion Awardee

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U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of four 2015 Asset Builder Champion Awards recipients, discusses the need for immigration reform and bipartisan policy efforts to help close the racial wealth gap.

The racial wealth gap in the United States continues to expand. Currently, Latinos hold only 7 cents for every dollar of wealth held by Whites. What do you think can be done to combat this trend? Why is fixing this divide so important for the future of the United States?

Inequality undermines American society and limits our ability to thrive. The income gap is only one aspect of inequality in the United States and there is only so much the government can do in the absence of deeper societal changes, but we in government must do our part.

That is why I have been very consistent in sponsoring legislation that can help close the pay equity gaps, including co-sponsoring the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1619) and consistently voting to expand – not cut – vital programs like Medicaid, SNAP, TANF and other forms of investments in the lives of individuals and families. It includes support for strong, equitable labor laws and worker protections. This extends to repayment of student loans and the availability of student loans and Pell Grants so that more people get access to higher education and the higher earnings that graduates typically earn. All of these investments in basic health and well-being and long-term equality and wage growth are targets under attack in Washington and especially in the House. With my colleagues, I am doing my best to defend these investments.

I am proud to have stood with workers in Chicago as part of the “Fight for $15” effort fighting to increase the minimum wage and I am proud to say that Chicago is moving in the right direction, with minimum wage moving towards $13. More importantly, perhaps, is that all children in Chicago who keep their grades up can get the first two years of college for free, regardless of their immigration status or the status of their parents. City colleges in Chicago can be an excellent ladder into other sorts of higher education and it is a wise and affordable investment in closing the wealth gap that we have locally and is a model for other communities.

And it’s worth noting that finally fixing our immigration system will drive significant economic growth for Latinos and the entire U.S. economy. Not only would these workers be on the books and subject to fair wage standards and working conditions, but they would have the security to take a big financial step like buying a home. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals estimates that if three million undocumented immigrants bought a home, it would translate into $500 billion in real estate purchases and another $233 billion in other consumer spending over five years.

What is a pressing issue facing today’s society that has largely gone unnoticed? What do you wish every resident of the United States knew and cared about?

That is such a broad question. Obviously, persistent inequality (partly addressed in Question #1) is a candidate, and so is immigration reform, gun-violence, and protecting our daughters, sisters and mothers from sexual assault. But from where I sit in Washington, the most pressing issue is the complete dysfunction of politics and government which gets worse, not better, every year.

Money, polls, money, and special interests – and money – drive everything in Washington. Public policy is no longer evaluated by whether it would help the nation. Rather it is evaluated by many politicians as to whether it makes the other political party look bad, whether it fires up a partisan base that is disconnected in many instances from what most Americans care about, and whether it generates campaign cash. On immigration and other issues, Republicans are forced to reject sensible public policy positions and opportunities to work across party lines because they feel their base wants them to oppose, first and foremost, anything President Obama is for and anything Democrats think is a good idea.

Bipartisanship is often lauded and seldom rewarded. Both parties can do more to reach out to each other, stop thinking so much about protecting themselves and their political careers, stop thinking about what the big donors like, and learn to play nice with each other in Congress for the good of country. There is no easy solution or set of incentives to fix this problem, but voters who care about bipartisanship and having a functional Congress and government must make that desire more palpable for politicians. Otherwise, the default will be more partisanship and more red meat for the base at election time.

What are some of your accomplishments you are most proud of? What are some of your goals in 2015 and beyond?

People know I am fighting for immigration reform and to implement the series of executive actions taken by President Obama in 2014. What the President announced is no substitute for legislative reform and leaves millions of people out, but it is an important step forward. Now we have to organize ourselves so that our brothers and sisters who qualify can apply when the window for applications opens. It is a test of our organizing skills and institutional capacities – whether we can organize ourselves to help those who qualify by engaging people who do not qualify, who already have legal status, and those of us who are citizens.

The faith community, state and local governments, service organizations, embassies/consulates, labor unions, clubs and social groups and individuals are stepping up to help people get ready and help them apply when the time comes. We need more of that. Everyone has a role to play in helping protect families who have lived here a long time to remain intact. It benefits all of us if we help immigrants who are contributing to our community remain in our community. And it helps our security if our government is concentrating its resources on people who actually pose a threat.

The President has given us a tool and it is up to leaders in the community to make sure that tool is put to good use and helps keep as many families as possible from being broken apart.

Many Americans feel that bipartisanship and cooperation are at an all-time low. During your tenure, what economy-focused bipartisan bills have passed both chambers that you consider a success? Where do you see the most cooperation between the parties? What issues do both parties see common ground on with regard to potential fixes?

On the economy and jobs, on help to families struggling to pay their bills, and on issues that would really help the country move forward, I do not see as much bipartisan common ground as we need to make progress. Democrats and Republicans mostly talk past each other on the most important issues. The overall partisanship, fueled by narrowly drawn congressional districts and unlimited campaign and outside cash, makes finding common ground very difficult. Major accomplishments like the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Affordable Care Act were mostly achieved in the absence of bipartisanship.

But there are a few exceptions. I participate in one of the most bipartisan committees on the Hill, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, so I know through that experience and many others that bipartisanship is possible and it is constructive. There remain many who would like to see surveillance reform legislation. I think there are many on both sides of the aisle who would support revising the underlying authorities for the bulk collection program.

Which gives me hope for immigration reform, which will be passed on a bipartisan basis and which is only a matter of time. The electorate is agreed, the Democrats are agreed, most of the Republicans are agreed, but partisanship has prevented a vote in the House. Today, the votes exist to pass immigration reform in the House. But the calculations of the partisanship: who gets credit and how much damage can potentially be done to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, are too prevalent in the considerations of many Republicans. The boost immigration reform would give to our economy, our security, our communities, and our basic sense of justice and fairness should come first, but tragically does not.

President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration was groundbreaking and, if it survives the challenge, will provide relief for millions of hard-working immigrants living in the United States. But do you believe it was the right decision? Could the executive order have gone further? What is an ideal solution to the immigration problem in the US

I was among those who pushed hard on the President to use the tremendous legal leeway Congress has granted to the Executive Branch to the fullest extent possible. I argued that he could go further and they chose to act more narrowly so that they could more easily defend themselves in federal court. We were both right. The President acted within the law, he could have gone further, but the legal challenges happened almost immediately and the President is on extraordinarily solid ground legally.

For example, it does not make sense to me to protect a child from deportation if their parent still faces the threat of deportation, but the President and Secretary of Homeland Security made a decision not to cover the parents of DREAMers or DACA recipients. It does not make sense to me to deport people because they had a minor infraction years ago that they have since made up for in multiple ways, but the guidelines for DACA and DAPA are very clear about previous—even minor– criminal activity. The choices made by the President and the Secretary are being put to the test in court as we speak.

But it is important to remember that what the President announced is not the reform we have been fighting for. It is simply a step that the President can take under current law in the absence of serious, thoughtful reform.

The outline of reform remains the same. We need to come to terms with the fact that most of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in our country will live here for the rest of their lives and we would rather have them in the system, on the books, and assimilating into American society rather than floating outside it in legal limbo. We need a modern immigration system so that people can come with visas and not smugglers within reasonable limits that are connected to the changing realities of families and our economy. We need to make sure that the strategic advantages that have made American society so great – like innovation, equality, diversity, freedom, and the rule of law – are compliments to and not at odds with our immigration system. And we need to make sure that the country is secure at every border – the land and sea borders to the east, west, north and south – and the modern borders like JFK airport, O’Hare, Newark and LAX. And that security must be part of a system of global security and global engagement because we are not just participants in the world, the U.S. is a leader.

Many regulations of financial institutions are slowly being unraveled. Hidden in the CROmnibus bill passed in 2014, among other things, were loosened regulations of risky derivative trading. What can be done to stop the roll-back of Dodd-Frank era rules? Should more be done today to strengthen regulations of banks and lenders?

I am proud of the work I did as a Subcommittee Chairman and a Member of the Financial Services Committee on passing the Dodd-Frank bill through the House and working with the Senate on the Conference Committee to get the bill signed by President Obama. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and oversight over international remittances are among the pieces I worked hardest on. Overall, Dodd-Frank was a good – if imperfect – response from the Congress to the complete lack of oversight that contributed to the financial collapse in this country and around the world. Of course it was not enough and of course it was not all we need to do.

In the financial services world, the balance of power is out of whack when it comes to Congress and it undermines democracy. A small group of Wall Street companies and rich people are always paying attention and stand to make millions of dollars on any given public policy choice.

In the meantime, millions of families and communities are still recovering from the devastating housing crisis and don’t have high powered lobbyists pounding the hallways here on their behalf.

It was clear we needed more cops on the beat for consumers. That’s why I was so proud to fight for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB is playing an important role in monitoring nonbank institutions – mortgage companies, payday lenders, and education lenders. These are three key areas where consumers, and minority consumers in particular, were often targeted with high interest rate credit cards, pushed into loans and mortgages that they could not afford, charged higher interest rates and fees than similarly suited borrowers.

We are trying to strike a careful balance in public policy. We worked hard to set clear regulations to prevent a return to the financial Wild West that contributed to the collapse. That means makings requiring lenders to do more to assess that a borrower has an ability to repay a loan. There is some tension because we also want to ensure minority communities can access homeownership, which is a principle means of growing wealth. The government can do more to help homeowners who are still underwater to achieve loan modifications, and we can be doing more to preserve affordable housing as the market is stabilizing.

It also means adequately funding other complementary efforts like housing counseling programs to both educate and prepare someone for the responsibilities of homeownership and to assist those who are still dealing with foreclosures. We need to ensure sufficient government personnel to investigate fair housing violations and to address discriminatory practices when they occur. We have shortchanged a lot of critical domestic investments in education and housing and infrastructure, all of which can help prepare future workers, lift individuals and families into the middle class, and fuel economic growth.

Interview conducted by Simona Combi and Alex Bannon

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