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Protecting Republicans from the ghosts of GOP past: Q&A with Carlos Gutierrez

From the Detroit Free Press

By Brian Dickerson

May 19, 2013

During his tenure as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Commerce, Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez was the Bush administration’s point man on immigration reform. Gutierrez, a former chairman and CEO of Kellogg, advised GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on outreach to Hispanics, but he was dismayed by the anti-immigrant tone of Romney’s campaign.

Gutierrez’s latest undertaking is a Super PAC that will provide financial support to Republicans who support legislation being championed by the so-called Group of Eight — four Democrats and four Republicans who have pledged to steer a bipartisan immigration reform bill through Congress this year.

Last week, Gutierrez spoke with Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson about his crusade:

FREE PRESS: Your party’s Hispanic panic seems to have crystallized with Romney’s defeat last November. But your own advocacy of immigration reform began long before that. When did you decide to found your pro-immigration Super PAC?

GUTIERREZ: Right after the election. It was a miserable defeat, and it shouldn’t have been that bad; we should have done a lot better.

We can’t be the party of growth and prosperity if we’re not the party of immigration, the pro-immigration party.

Q: But in the last election cycle, Republican presidential candidates were almost universally hostile to immigration reform. Herman Cain wanted to dig a moat on the border and fill it with alligators. Your own candidate, Romney, said he hoped undocumented immigrants would self-deport.

A. I remember the Romney campaign saying, well, if you poll Hispanics, immigration is only No. 5 on their list of concerns, so it’s not that important. But as Sen. (Marco) Rubio (R-Fla.) has said, Hispanics may agree with your economic policy, but if they think you’re going to deport their grandmother, they’re not going to vote for you.

Q: Gov. Rick Snyder likes to describe himself as the most pro-immigration governor in America; Republicans in our state’s congressional delegation have been a little bit more cautious. What conversations have you had with Republicans in Michigan, and how much help do you expect them to provide in passing immigration reform?

A: I have had a chance to spend time with Gov. Snyder, and I’ve been very impressed with his outreach. He goes to just about every immigrant community in Michigan. He attends their holiday celebrations. He makes an effort to be seen, he makes an effort to welcome immigrants.

Q: What about other Michigan Republicans?

We can’t coordinate with the candidates. But what we do is identify those who are vulnerable to a primary challenge from their right. That’s what really worries them, and our role is to defend them from a primary challenge from their right, to give them political cover.

Q: So who in Michigan’s congressional delegation might qualify for that kind of help?

I don’t believe we’ve talked to any of them, which is good, because we shouldn’t be coordinating with them. But there are some very good Republicans in Michigan who may need our help.

(U.S. Rep.) Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) is a longtime friend who may need some kind of support. (Reps.) Dave Camp (R-Midland), Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), Mike Rogers (R-Brighton), of course, who is a key player in Congress. Those are the sorts of people who we would hate to see not support immigration reform, but we would also hate to see any of them get a primary challenger demogogue-ing the issue without having the support they need.

Q. You blame Congress for illegal immigration. Can you explain your reasoning?

A. I find it very frustrating that nobody looks at Congress and says, you are responsible for illegal immigration. Because we have been working with laws that go back 50 years.

When we got rid of the guest-worker program in 1964 — it was the so-called Bracero Program, which had a lot of problems, and the working conditions were very poor — but what it did do was enable people to come to the U.S. and work, go back home and come back to the U.S., so there wasn’t a need for illegal immigration. It was when the Bracero Program was stopped and wasn’t replaced with anything that illegal immigration started.

Q. What would you hope the immigration reform bill that is in markup now will look like when it finally comes to the floor of the U.S. Senate?

Well, I would hope it looks pretty much the way it looks now. We’ve got to do three things: securing the border, of course; how to deal with people who are here and undocumented; but extremely important is, ‘What is our new system?’

My concern with the bill is that the future quotas are too low. But one of the most important things about this bill is that there would be a commission of cabinet officials who will be in charge of seeing whether the immigration quotas are sufficient, whether they are serving the economy. If we didn’t have that mechanism, if we started a new system that has quotas that are too low, then we’re just asking for trouble. We’re asking for illegal immigration to continue, because employers have to find a way of filling those jobs.

Q: You were the point man back in 2007 for President George W. Bush’s unsuccessful reform initiative. What factors were decisive in killing immigration reform then, and what has changed in the six years since?

I think the environment is less explosive, less intense.

People like (U.S. Rep. Tom) Tancredo (R-Colorado) were voted out of office. (CNN’s) Lou Dobbs no longer has his own show where he can just bash immigration for 30 minutes every night. I think even on Fox News, some of the more anti-immigration folks have softened their stance.

But these population-control groups — such as FAIR, Numbers USA, the Center for Immigration Studies — they’re still around.

Q: You’ve been passionate about debunking one of the favorite talking points of Republicans who oppose immigration reform — this notion that making it easier for immigrants to come here or to stay here will take jobs away from native-born Americans. What’s wrong with that argument?

A: I was talking to a farmer who said if I had more workers, I would farm more acres, which means I would need more distribution centers, which are run by U.S. citizens. I would have crops to export, which would give U.S. citizens jobs at ports. So it has this multiplier effect.

And we haven’t even talked about high-skilled jobs, where you have companies moving R&D centers to Canada because they can’t find the PhDs and the mathematicians in the United States because our immigration quotas are too low.

Q: The bill under consideration now would accelerate the citizenship process for immigrants who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM immigrants. What would you tell Michigan parents whose college-educated children are looking for jobs in those field right now?

The unemployment rate is a lot lower for people who have a college degree, so you’re probably looking in low 4%-range for college graduates. So it’s actually a pretty tight market. The 65,000 quota (for STEM graduates) that the government gives today is taken up in the first four or five, so in the rest of the year, we don’t have enough.

Come back to next week, on Wednesday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. to watch Carlos Gutierrez’s keynote speech to the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Contact Brian Dickerson at 313-222-6584 or