Call for change stirs East Boston immigrants

Ill. Democrat cites Latino community’s leverage

After he addressed a rally in East Boston yesterday, US Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (in T-shirt) received a hug from his colleague Michael E. Capuano. Both Democrats want President Obama to change US immigration policy. After he addressed a rally in East Boston yesterday, US Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (in T-shirt) received a hug from his colleague Michael E. Capuano. Both Democrats want President Obama to change US immigration policy. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / April 4, 2011

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A Democratic congressman from President Obama’s home state gathered immigrants in East Boston yesterday to draw attention to the plight of families that fear being divided by deportation and to warn that the president risks losing the support of the Latino community if he doesn’t deliver on immigration reform.

“We kind of made a covenant. There was a compact. You came to us and you said, ‘Elect me president of the United States and I will be your champion for immigration reform,’ ’’ said Representative Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois. “Wherever I go, people say to me, ‘Luis, when’s he going to keep his promise?’ ’’

Gutierrez spoke on one stop of a 20-city tour he is calling the Campaign for American Children and Families, to condemn an increase in deportation orders and to draw attention to the tenuous lives of the children of immigrants who fear their families will be torn apart.

Kati Medrano, an 11-year-old Somerville girl whose parents came from El Salvador, said her relatives have been visited and interrogated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“They violated my rights as a US citizen. They violated my family’s rights as human beings,’’ she told the audience of about 250 people. Though she and her younger brother are citizens, she said, her parents have only temporary protection orders and her older brother is undocumented.

The event was organized by Centro Presente, a statewide Latino immigrant organization that advocates for immigrant rights and economic and social justice. “We are not afraid to challenge the Obama administration,’’ said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente.

Gutierrez was joined at La Casa de la Cultura by Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat and fellow congressional supporter of the DREAM Act, a federal measure that would give illegal immigrants a route to citizenship but that stalled in the Senate last year.

“I’m actually tired of this issue,’’ Capuano told the crowd, saying the country has a long history of viewing new waves of immigrants as suspect or undeserving of rights. “And I’m tired of it because it’s a new issue again, because it’s a long, long history in this country of always looking at the new wave of immigrants as somehow people who are bad, somehow people who don’t deserve rights. You’d think that we would have learned something from our history. And we haven’t.’’

While acknowledging that Republicans have blocked some of the president’s efforts, Gutierrez urged Obama to use his authority to act independently of Congress to establish a “parole-in-place’’ policy that would let undocumented immigrants remain in the country while immigration policy is overhauled. And he warned that Obama otherwise risks losing the support of the Latino community, which supported him in 2008 and which he has been making new efforts to attract.

“For too long, our movement has been tied to one party,’’ said Gutierrez. “Listen, this issue is greater than the Democrats, the Republicans, or any one party. This is a human rights issue.’’

Comparing immigration to the civil rights battles of the 1960s, he asked whether Rosa Parks thought, before refusing to give up her seat on a bus, “How’s this going to affect the president? How’s it going to affect my party?’’

Capuano and others referred to immigrants as hard-working citizens who are being treated like criminals, and some rebuked the federal Secure Communities program, which calls for local and state police to check the immigration status of suspects. Immigration advocates were incensed that Governor Deval Patrick — who early in his tenure had barred state troopers from checking immigration status — agreed to participate in the federal program well before it becomes mandatory nationally in 2013.

“The majority of people that are deported from the United States have absolutely no criminal background,’’ said Gutierrez. “You know who they are? They’re somebody’s mom. They’re somebody’s dad. . . . They’re somebody that is loved by somebody here in the country.’’

Gutierrez said most immigrants still want to support Obama. But after seeing deportations increase under his administration and learning of the Secure Communities program, he said, they will challenge the president to provide more balance through immigration reform.

“We may not get invited to the state dinners anymore,’’ he said. “We may not get invited to go watch games at the White House anymore. We might not get to travel on Air Force One.’’

A woman in the audience said the president’s actions speak louder than his words and that she is concerned “that we waste our energy in a dialogue with President Obama instead of confronting him with the only thing he seems to care about — his power.’’

Gutierrez agreed and said Latinos will make their own voting decisions — and could even abstain from voting if no preferable candidate to the president emerges.

“You shouldn’t take the vote of our community for granted,’’ he said, to applause.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at