Ten-term U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez has been at the center of the national conversation on immigration reform since it ramped up in recent decades. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Editor’s Note: To celebrate four decades of muckraking on issues of race and poverty, we kick off this 40th anniversary edition with a focus on four of The Chicago Reporter’s key beats–criminal justice, immigration, labor and housing.

The history behind each issue has had its own trajectory since the Reporter’s founding in 1972. To illustrate that, we sat down with prominent figures whose activism has made its mark in their respective fields and asked them to reflect on their experiences.

We are confident these retrospective articles provide a unique insight into what it’s been like to work “in the trenches” of the nation’s toughest social justice issues.

On the morning of March 10, 2006, a throng of marchers packed the streets of downtown Chicago. Estimated by police at more than 100,000 people, the crowd was marching to voice its opposition to proposed federal legislation, H.R. 4437. The measure, known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, would have turned undocumented immigrants into felons and criminalized those who assisted them.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez greeted the crowd at the Federal Plaza. “I have never been prouder to march, to show my commitment to a cause, than I have been today,” he told the marchers. “Raise those American flags! This is our country, and this is where we will stay.”During the following few months, about 5 million people participated in similar “mega marches” nationwide. Chicago hosted two of the biggest mobilizations that contributed to the bill’s defeat.Such a large public response to the immigration issue is a recent phenomenon, said Gutierrez, who represents the 4th District, which covers parts of Chicago and the western suburbs. In 1972, when The Chicago Reporter was launched, it would have been unimaginable, he said. But in a span of 40 years, the immigration issue has become highly politicized and developed into one of the most divisive hot-button issues at both the local and national levels.

“As Latinos in the ‘70s, there was never a sense that we needed to go out and help those who were undocumented or even challenge ourselves to do better with that part of our community,” Gutierrez recalled.

During the course of Gutierrez’s political career, however, immigrant rights have always been his focus, and he has long served as the key spokesman for immigration reform in Congress.

“Obviously, the voters of the 4th Congressional District are citizens, and [immigration] doesn’t impact them directly, but they care about it,” said Gutierrez, a Chicago native of Puerto Rican descent who has represented the area since 1992.

Changes in population hint at what’s driving the issue’s rising prominence.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that, following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated racial quotas of admittance, the nation’s foreign-born population grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to nearly 40 million in 2010.

There are about 11.1 million undocumented people living in the U.S., according to a 2012 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. It’s a diverse population. In 2010, the migrants from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America made up more than 85 percent of the country’s foreign-born population. Chicago mirrors this nationwide trend, with Mexicans becoming the largest single foreign-born group in the city.

Gutierrez said the movement to demand equal rights now includes more minority groups than during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, but the same group of advocates are still coming to campaign for immigrants.

“When we’re in Birmingham, Alabama, responding to the anti-immigrant legislation passed there, we’re at the same church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from,” Gutierrez said. “We’re with many of the same combatants and fighters. Many of the same voices that were raised then are organizing” for immigrant rights.

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Chicago has a history of early immigrant activism. During the 1970s, organizations such as Centro de Accion Social Autonomo were formed in Chicago to help elect a Latino politician to Congress. But it wasn’t until the latter half of the 1980s that the immigration issue began to permeate public discussions, Gutierrez said.

The issue’s visibility coincided with the increase of Latino representation in politics during the Harold Washington era, when he served as an adviser to the Chicago mayor, Gutierrez said.

Around that time, then-President Ronald Reagan signed into law one of the most comprehensive immigration reform proposals in the country’s history. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who had been continuously living in the United States since 1982.

Gutierrez pointed out that the political environment back then is in stark contrast to the one surrounding today’s Congress.

The 1986 law “happened almost in the absence of a broad demand from the community,” he said. “There weren’t millions of people marching in the streets before the 1986 law. There was an economic need to get it done and a spirit of bipartisanship in the Congress of the United States.”

The law spawned the creation of local organizations, such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which were designed to meet the increasing demands for immigration paperwork. These organizations eventually expanded their missions to include integration services, like English classes and voter registration.

Since he became the first Latino to go to Congress from the Midwest, Gutierrez has offered similar services for immigrants. His was the first congressional office nationwide to sponsor citizenship workshops. It was during a time when immigration resources were growing in demand, but immigrants themselves were, in a political sense, increasingly seen as undesirable.

The 1990s were a rough time to advocate for immigrants in Congress, Gutierrez recalled. “It was very xenophobic. The mentality was: ‘We don’t want anyone that isn’t already from here to come here, regardless,’” he said.

And as a slew of anti-immigration bills were making their way through Congress, he found no ally in then-President Bill Clinton, Gutierrez said.

“I remember complaining about Clinton and his acquiescence to these types of reforms that were happening almost simultaneously as the president was running for re-election and didn’t want to have to fight the Republicans in Congress,” he said.

The legislation that Gutierrez opposed–the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act–were passed in 1996. They restricted eligibility for federally funded programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid for undocumented immigrants, as well as U.S.-born children of noncitizen parents.

Immigrants also became subject to “expedited removal,” or on-the-spot deportation, without a hearing by an immigration judge or an appeal process. Criminal categories expanded so that petty crimes, such as shoplifting, were classified as “aggravated felonies” that could trigger deportation.

The number of deportations steadily increased during the latter half of the 1990s, more than doubling between 1996 and 1997 alone, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Then, by the turn of millennium, the momentum was shifting back the other way.

In 2001, Gutierrez drafted the U.S. Employee, Family Unity, and Legalization Act that challenged many of the provisions of the 1996 legislation. He also advocated for an early version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which proposed deferred action and a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented students. He was hopeful, he recalled. “The conversation about immigration and immigration reform was beginning to bubble up,” he said.

In early September, then-President George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vincente Fox, were in general agreement about expansion to the guest worker program.

On Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed. A large rally that had been planned to support Gutierrez’s legislation never materialized. His bill and other immigration reform measures faded away.

With immigration perceived as a matter of national security, the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security took over duties previously handled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The enforcement of immigration laws became the utmost priority, Gutierrez said. “Now we had an immigration policy that was geared toward enforcement and not helping people resolve their immigration problem, not keeping families together,” he said.

In recent years, the enforcement-first approach to immigration still dominated. For example, more than 1 million deportations were carried out during the first term of President Barack Obama–the highest number in four years under any president.

This has pushed immigrant advocates to take on new campaigns, including large-scale marches, to build momentum for immigration reform. Gutierrez himself has been arrested twice in front of the White House during protests against deportations.

Slowly, advocates are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. Last year, President Obama adapted a policy of deferred action to give undocumented youths a pathway to a work permit. Gutierrez and other advocates praised the move. “When I saw the first work permit, I have to tell you, it brought a joy to me that I had not felt in such a long time,” he said.

Gutierrez is confident that the support for comprehensive immigration reform will rapidly pick up steam. “We’re going to have it because people in the street are going to demand it,” he said.

On the night of Nov. 6, Gutierrez joined a group of immigration advocates outside McCormick Place, the site of the president’s election-night festivities. Some of them waited for the election results while holding signs that read, “Americans Vote for Immigration Reform Now.”

“Today, you hear voices of those who wish to defend our immigrant community,” Gutierrez said. “It’s very different today than it was even in 1986.”

Contributing: Maria Ines Zamudio