‘Painful,’ ’emotional’: Veterans of the immigration fight reflect on past failures

Collectively, they’ve been trying — without success — to get Congress to pass immigration reform for more than 90 years. And none of them say they’ve given up hope.

As the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and other immigration priorities remains in limbo, a handful of veterans of the many iterations of immigration reform attempts over the last few decades spoke with CNN about why agreement has been so elusive — and why they keep trying again.

They represent voices all over the spectrum. Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is a Republican, the son of Cuban exiles and a perennial optimist in finding centrist immigration consensus. Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez is a Democrat of Puerto Rican descent who has long been the respected voice of the immigrant advocacy community in Congress.

Greisa Martínez Rosas is a DACA recipient herself and advocacy director from one of the most prominent DACA advocacy groups, United We Dream. Dan Stein is president of Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the most influential groups that advocates for strictly reducing immigration, legal and illegal. And Leon Fresco is an immigration attorney who worked on immigration legislation for Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer and in the Justice Department for President Barack Obama.

Many describe their dedication to the issue as “painful” at times, and see plenty of blame to go around for the repeated failures, but they still remain committed to the cause.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart

Diaz-Balart is one of a long line of politicians in his family, dating back to Cuba before the rise of Fidel Castro. Pictures and memorabilia of their legacy, persecuted and forced out of Cuba when Castro took power, adorn his office walls in the Cannon House Office Building.

The Florida Republican says he was interested in the issue of immigration since he was elected in 2002, but in 2009 after Obama’s win, he joined the debate more intensely. From that point on, he has been a central player in various attempts to reach agreement on immigration reform, all of which have fallen short.

He said he learned in that first iteration an important lesson, when he blames Democratic leaders Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from walking away from a deal.

“That was a big lesson as to — there’s a difference between what some people say publicly and what some people do privately,” Diaz-Balart said.

He likens trying to find the sweet spot on an immigration compromise to “a very narrow window that we have to kind of drive a bus through,” but says he believes that a real deal will have to legalize undocumented immigrants at the same time it beefs up border security, with “triggers” that can keep compromises unfolding concurrently.

“It can’t be a wink and a nod,” he said. “You have to deal with both issues in a real way, in a serious way, and both sides are going to have to win some and both sides are going to have to give in quite a bit if we’re going to get this done.”

Still, even with the multiple setbacks, Diaz-Balart says he remains “optimistic” that there will be a breakthrough, even during a Trump administration.

“This has been the ugliest and the most painful issue I’ve ever dealt with,” he said. “A few years ago, a couple of Congresses ago, when myself and a couple of folks came really, really close, when we couldn’t get it done, it was one of those most painful days in my legislative career. … It sometimes gets ugly because you get accused of all sorts of things — by the way, from all sides.”

But he said the issue won’t go away.

“There is, I think, bipartisan support by the majority of the members of the House and the Senate,” he continued. “If we can find that magic mix to get it done, there’s very strong support to do it. … It’s not going to fix itself. It is inevitable that, eventually, we’re going to have to come together to solve it.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez

First elected to Congress in 1992, the born-and-raised Chicagoan has been working on immigration issues virtually his whole career, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants.

Gutierrez is seen in Congress as deeply in touch with the immigrant community, making him a key partner in any effort to overhaul the immigration system.

Retiring at the end of his current term, the Democrat reflected on how far the debate has come and what remains continually difficult. He recalled when Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain recruited him in an effort in 2002, McCain told him his challenge would be convincing Democrats and unions to allow an expanded guest worker program.

“And I said, ‘Senator, what’s yours?’ And he said, ‘Legalizing the millions of undocumented,'” Gutierrez recalls. “What has become increasingly difficult, is what he said the Republican challenge was going to be, that is legalizing people. And the conversation has shifted. … We didn’t have these draconian measures to change our immigration system.”

Frequently a firebrand and vocal critic of President Donald Trump, Gutierrez called Trump’s long-promised southern border wall “racist” and said the image is “painful” and “distasteful” to Latinos in the US.

On the wall of his office, Gutierrez has the front page of a newspaper framed, picturing him standing with now-House Speaker Paul Ryan at an immigration reform event in Chicago. Now, Gutierrez cites pledges Ryan has made to his party to not attach immigration to spending bills and not call any bill that won’t get a majority of the Republican conference. But he blames Trump for the change.

“Let’s say tomorrow Speaker Ryan and I, we have lunch, and we reach an agreement,” Gutierrez said. “And I’m gonna have to take some bad medicine on the Democratic side. … Why is it in my self interest to do it? When the irrational, unpredictable, inconsistent man at the White House might just trash it all anyways?”

Gutierrez agrees with Diaz-Balart on the personal toll, and also felt like Pelosi did not take immigration seriously years ago.

“It’s hard. And it’s been brutal,” he said. “And for me, I’m happy to see how Nancy Pelosi is finally on board for immigrants. Because I remember in 2007, when we were in the majority, and she just blew me off. … It’s good to see her today standing up for dreamers and for immigration.”

Bipartisanship in Congress is “dead,” Gutierrez says matter-of-factly, but said there’s still hope for him on immigration, if Democrats can control the majority in the House.

“We have to take back the House. There’s no doubt for me,” Gutierrez said. “It’s very frustrating, but here’s what I would say positively: Democrats are on board now.”

Gutierrez won’t be in Congress if that happens however.

“I saw Speaker Ryan and he said, ‘Oh, Luis! You’re leaving,'” Gutierrez said. “And I said, ‘Oh, no, no, Speaker. Not before I make sure there are 5,000 new America citizens in the state of Wisconsin. Not before I do the same thing in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. Not before I go back to Florida where today there are 250,000 additional Puerto Ricans who have sought refuge from the island of Puerto Rico, and make sure that they understand if they want to go home, they can’t have President Donald Trump as President. … We’re going to organize.”

Greisa Martínez Rosas

Rosas herself is living with an expiration date, a participant of the DACA program she is fighting to save. Her efforts on immigration go back to the mid-2000s, when she helped organize student walkouts in high school to protest immigration proposals.

“We saw on the news that there were these men in Washington, DC, proposing laws that would say that our parents would be considered criminals just for being in the country undocumented,” she recalled. “I just felt that that was such an affront and so unfair to my mom and my dad. And my friends and I got together.”

In the years since, she has risen to deputy executive director of United We Dream, and the effort is still personal.

“I am 29 years old. My DACA expires in about a year. I bought a home. I have a car that I have to pay for, and I love this country,” Rosas said. “It feels unfair. It feels really cruel. Honestly, it also feels vaguely liberating in the sense that I have a set period of time where I can do and be as loud and as courageous as I can because there’s some sort of safety net for me. And I need to make it count.”

She continued: “I live everyday thinking that this could be my last day in this country. This could be the last time that I see my little sisters or my sisters here. That both scares me, but it also gives me a reason to keep fighting, because it could be my last day, and I want it to count.”

Rosas, whose family is from Mexico, said that for the immigrants fighting in the debate, a future for the undocumented people who have been living here is a “humanitarian issue” and not seen in terms of “political points” or “policy changes.”

The DACA recipients who refer to themselves as “dreamers” after the Dream Act that would give them a path to citizenship feel “held hostage for political gain on both sides.”

And Rosas said any purported compromise that harms some immigrants to benefit others misses the point.

“There’s this frame that in order to help people you have to hurt some people in the process. And that that is supposed to be compromise,” Rosas said. “We’re part of units. We’re part of families. When you’re talking about trade-offs and when you’re talking about what may seem simple policy concessions, they have big ripple effects on our families.”

The 2016 election “clarified” the debate, Rosas said, by making clear who is on either side. She echoed Gutierrez in calling it heartening to see Pelosi’s commitment to the issue and said the groundswell of support for DACA recipients, who have now come out of the shadows, is another major step forward.

“The biggest lesson that my parents have taught me and this country has taught me is that patience and change comes really, really slowly,” Rosas said.

Dan Stein

Stein got into immigration issues out of his work in the 1970s as a Hill staffer working on narcotics policies. He’s been at the Federation for American Immigration Reform since 1982 and the group’s president since 2003, advocating for the restriction of legal immigration, the groups says to benefit the American worker.

Stein’s family immigrated to the US from Russia and Ukraine in the early 20th century.

While FAIR is most of the time aligned with the GOP, the nonpartisan group still finds itself warring with other Republicans, as Stein and the group decry what they call “corporatist” interests that have a business interest in using immigrant labor, they say to keep wages down.

“You can lay the blame for the collapse of effective policymaking in this area in many places, but there is an establishment corporatist wing of the Republican Party that is constantly undermining the popular support for strong immigration controls, which has helped lead to the demise of American manufacturing and labor unions in this country,” Stein said. “Ultimately, there’s a split within the Republican Party that should not be there, because the base of the Republican Party is monolithically supportive of interior enforcement, employer sanctions, and other things.”

He added: “Immigration policy isn’t like most other areas of public policy. The left-right dichotomy simply doesn’t apply. ”

Stein acknowledges that immigration is an “emotional issue” that invokes “compassion” and at the end of the day is about people. But, he adds, it’s also about the rule of law, which he says is the foundation of society.

“It implicates deep, profound moral questions,” Stein said of the subject. “It implicates the question of the rule of law and citizenship and how we define ourselves as a nation, what enables us to cohere as a nation not bound by substantive historical traditions or ethnicity or even language anymore. In the end, respect for law remains a cornerstone of citizenship.”

Stein credits Trump with bringing the “populist” issue to the forefront, saying he recognized that in the Democrats moving left on the issue, there was more room to the right of that position. But just because they supported Trump’s campaign pledges doesn’t mean they follow him wherever he goes — they say any immigration reform should start with the hardline positions he took during the campaign.

“We all know that Donald Trump’s somewhat unpredictable public demeanor can give people heartburn. We’re no different, but he’s been fairly consistent along the way,” Stein said. “Part of what we’re doing as an organization is tracking those promises and trying to make sure that he delivers.”

Leon Fresco

Fresco has seen the immigration landscape firsthand from multiple angles: He’s been an immigration attorney, worked in Congress for Schumer and served in the Obama Justice Department. He’s also a first-generation American, with his parents coming to the US from Cuba.

Fresco defended Obama and Congress for not passing immigration reform in 2009, saying with the economic crash that occurred just before Obama took office and high unemployment, it would have been tough for Americans to swallow.

He said that the challenge of the group he was a part of in 2013 that negotiated the Gang of Eight immigration bill that passed the Senate was for there to be an “honest reckoning” for all sides of the table, including Democrats needing to get tough on illegal immigration while being welcoming to those already here.

“I do think that what’s complicated for Democrats is that, while the majority of the country is probably centrist on immigration, if given the choice between what they feel is a very progressive, almost non-rule-of-law version of immigration and a very draconian view of immigration, they will choose the draconian view because they at least want some order in the system,” Fresco said. “That is one thing I do think Secretary Clinton did not do an ideal job of. … To the extent that anybody cared about that issue, they voted for President Trump.”

Fresco argues in favor of a bigger bill rather than a narrow one, saying that the comprehensive immigration reform approach gives every interest a stake in the bill for themselves rather than “proxy buy-in.”

But he said people will need to take a “leap of faith” to agree on a bill, granting leniency for the people already hear to crack down on those who would break the law in the future.

He called working on the 2013 bill, which passed by a wide margin in the Senate but died in the House, “the most inspiring time in my political career,” saying the bill actually started from scratch.

“Every one of those eight members, I think they would each tell you that they were inspired by that process because I’ve never seen that happen before, and I don’t know if it’ll happen again,” Fresco said. “In this environment it’s very hard to get people into a room and say, ‘We’re gonna negotiate in good faith on an immigration bill.’ There are too many polarizing influences that make that incredibly difficult to accomplish, if not impossible.”