Q&A: Why Immigration Reform Is Key to the GOP's Survival

Inside man: Gutierrez (Chet Susslin) (National Journal)

Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Commerce secretary in President George W. Bush's second term, was one of that administration's leading proponents of immigration reform. Born in Cuba, he was a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Hispanic outreach. Before his tenure at Commerce, Gutierrez was chairman of the board and chief executive officer at Kellogg. Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.

NJ Describe the super PAC you are helping to start to support Republicans who favor immigration reform.

Gutierrez We believe that if the Republican Party truly is the party of opportunity, of prosperity, of the ability to go from poverty to wealth, then we have to be the party of immigration. We're going to start [fundraising early this] year. We want to have it up and running and full-speed ahead by 2014.

It will offer political cover to Republicans who support immigration reform. I remember Newt Gingrich's comment during the primaries about [legalizing undocumented] people who have been here 25 years. He was criticized for that.

NJ Your candidate, Mitt Romney, criticized him.

Gutierrez Yes. I still don't know where "self-deportation" came from. I think it was [New Mexico Gov.] Susana Martinez who talked him out of that. She said she didn't even know what that means. Everyone quotes the polls that say immigration is not the top issue for Hispanics and that Hispanics are more attracted by an economic message. What people are missing in the psyche of Hispanics is that criticizing immigrants, whether they are undocumented or not, the language and the body language suggests to Hispanics that Republicans don't like them.

NJ Why did Romney take such a hard line against illegal immigration?

Gutierrez Do you remember [in one of the primary debates] when the question was asked, "If you had a budget deal that gave you $10 of spending cuts for $1 in revenue, would you take it?" They all said no. Imagine today if we had that deal? It would be very interesting to have a candidate be the same person in the primaries and in the general and stand for the same things. But, for some reason, that's not the way the system works.

The important thing for me was that Governor Romney was moderating his [immigration] stance. He never again used that term self-deportation, and he was talking about a comprehensive reform bill. But people were just hearing self-deportation.

NJ Why did he wait until the fall to invest in Spanish-language media?

Gutierrez I was one of many surrogates, and the campaign decision-making was all centralized in Boston. We all asked that question. When is it coming? President Obama had [former talk-show host] Cristina Saralegui endorsing him, and it was amazing the weight behind that television spot.

NJ What is your advice to members of Congress interested in pursuing immigration reform?

Gutierrez There's a debate on whether you do it piecemeal or do the whole thing. Piecemeal, I suppose, can work, but it requires that recognition that every piece is just one module of a very big tapestry. I would hate to think we get the STEM bill [targeting science, technology, engineering, and math graduates] through or the Achieve Act through, and then we're done. There may be some benefit in starting with low-hanging fruit and feeling comfortable that we as Republicans can take this initiative, but it has to be just a start. The risk of doing it piecemeal is that we continue to punt on what we will do about the undocumented and feel good that we got a couple of bills through.

What I believe is going to happen in the next couple months is that even though Republicans are taking leadership roles on STEM and Achieve legislation, I don't think it will get through. The Democrats will kill it.

They will say they want to deal with [all] the undocumented and have a comprehensive approach. And then, I believe, the majority leader in the Senate is going to drop the most liberal comprehensive immigration bill you can ever imagine, and that will force Republicans to vote against it. Then, immigration is an issue for 2014. As I have been saying to Hispanics, "You're being used." This isn't about getting to a solution. It's about picking up the votes.

NJ Would you be satisfied with legislation that offers undocumented workers legal status but no path to citizenship?

Gutierrez I believe the 2007 bill is a very good start. We had a process of legalization, and, as we said back then, if people are interested in pursuing a longer-term green card or longer-term citizenship, they have to go to the back of the line. They can't cut in front of others who are waiting, and I think we calculated the wait could be as long as 14 years, which strikes me as reasonable. If we are really doing this in good faith on both sides, we should be able to negotiate something like that.

NJ Won't some Republicans call that amnesty?

Gutierrez They've paid a fine, they've undergone a background check, they've paid back taxes and whatever it is that is decided. That clears up that it isn't amnesty. They're not getting a passport. They're getting a card that says they are legal.

NJ What would you do differently if you could go back to 2007, when you were trying to negotiate reform? Would you frame it as a strategy for economic growth?

Gutierrez Yes, we should have framed it better as an economic argument, using numbers, using statistics, using the big picture. I would have liked that at the beginning we agree that this is a major strategic opportunity for the U.S. This is economics. The 21st century is about human capital. We will compete for human capital in same way we compete for investmentcapital, and countries that don't  recognize that are going to fall behind.

This article appeared in the Saturday, January 12, 2013 edition of National Journal.