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Carlos Gutierrez speaks about removing trade impediments between the U.S. and Canada at the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, October 30, 2007. (Chris Kleponis for The Globe and Mail)
Carlos Gutierrez speaks about removing trade impediments between the U.S. and Canada at the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, October 30, 2007. (Chris Kleponis for The Globe and Mail)

U.S. POLITICS

A lonely GOP voice for immigration reform Add to ...

For many years, Carlos Gutierrez had a dual life. In one, he climbed the corporate ladder, rung by rung, to emerge at the top of a Fortune 500 company. In the other, he was a petitioner in a world governed by files and paperwork and deadlines.

It was a place of constant worry: Could he secure American citizenship for his wife and son, born in Mexico? Would he receive visas critical to his career?

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“Immigrants are worriers by nature,” said Mr. Gutierrez, a former U.S. secretary of commerce who was born in Cuba and arrived in Miami at the age of 6. “Anything that goes wrong just turns your life upside down.”

When Mr. Gutierrez talks about the immigrant experience in the United States, it is with a keen sense of empathy and a deep desire to fix a broken system. Now all he has to do is persuade his fellow Republicans to do the same.

Mr. Gutierrez, 59, has emerged as a major voice in the effort to overhaul the Republican Party’s approach to immigration – a shift that, if successful, could help revive the party’s fortunes after a disastrous showing in last November’s elections.

The first test is already here. On Monday, at a swearing-in ceremony for 28 new citizens, President Barack Obama turned up the heat, saying “the time has come” for lawmakers to fix the country’s immigration system “once and for all.” In early April, the Senate is expected to take up a bipartisan proposal for wide-ranging immigration reform. On the to-do list: measures to increase border security; more visas for skilled workers; a guest-worker program; and a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

The road ahead is difficult. But advocates note that for the first time in decades, there are strong motivations for both parties to strike a deal. Mr. Obama wants a major legislative accomplishment in an area where Democrats have promised change but failed to achieve it. Republicans, meanwhile, are scrambling to repair their battered standing with Hispanic voters.

Mr. Gutierrez knows first-hand how urgent that need is. In the most recent election campaign, he served as director of outreach to the Hispanic community for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. There he found himself in the unenviable position of explaining what the candidate meant when he said, during the Republican primaries, that undocumented immigrants should “self-deport” to their home countries.

“Those two words probably cost him the election,” Mr. Gutierrez said in a recent interview in his corner office on the top floor of Citigroup’s headquarters in Manhattan. He is wearing an elegant dark blue suit, a Brioni tie and a white plastic bracelet bearing the word cambio – change – in support of political change in Cuba.

“It’s not just the Hispanic vote,” he said. “We – the Republicans – lost the Asian-American vote, we lost the immigrant vote. By treating one group of immigrants with such apparent – this is important – apparent disdain, all immigrants felt, ‘Boy, the GOP doesn’t want me here.’ ”

Mr. Gutierrez is stepping down from his senior post at Citigroup to devote his time and resources to a new super political action committee called Republicans for Immigration Reform. It will spend money on efforts to move the party away from fringe positions on immigration – and to protect those Republicans who embrace reform from right-wing challengers.

For instance, Mr. Gutierrez’s group is running ads supporting Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, who is working on the bipartisan immigration proposal and who may face primary challenges from Republicans further to the right ahead of a 2014 re-election bid.

Mr. Gutierrez himself was featured in a recent ad from a different group – the Hispanic Leadership Network – which highlighted his own improbable journey. The attention is “kind of embarrassing,” he said. “It was all about me and the American dream.”

There’s no other term that better fits his story. When Mr. Gutierrez arrived legally in the United States as a child in 1960, he spoke not a word of English. The first one he learned was “rubber band,” courtesy of a friendly bellhop at a hotel in Miami Beach.

The start of school in an entirely new language included “lonely days of just not knowing what was going on,” he remembers. “You’re kind of fearful of every school day until time goes by and you begin to adjust – and you adjust, especially at that age.”

When Mr. Gutierrez was 12, the family had a huge scare during its citizenship process. U.S. authorities launched an investigation into his father – questioning neighbours, for instance – in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity (a criminal in Cuba had the same name).

“It’s one of those many experiences where you say, ‘What if we don’t get citizenship? What if they don’t figure this out and we’ve got to go back to Cuba?’ ” Mr. Gutierrez said.

As a teenager, he moved to Mexico when his father was offered a job there by H.J. Heinz Co. From there, Mr. Gutierrez worked his way up the ranks at Kellogg Co., including stints as head of the company’s operations in Canada and later in Australia. In 1999, at the age of 45, he became chief executive. In 2004, then President George W. Bush nominated him to become commerce secretary.

To this day, Mr. Gutierrez always carries his American passport. He takes it out of his inner jacket pocket and explains that it started as a matter of convenience – his job involved frequent travel – but it touches on something deeper. “It’s also an immigrant’s complex, perhaps – ‘Boy, I hope no one challenges my legitimacy,’ ” he said.

That sensibility has shaped Mr. Gutierrez’s approach to immigrants of all stripes. He knows that in the current debate, one flash point will be a move to institute a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Until recently, such a proposal would have been considered anathema within the Republican Party and tarred by many as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.

“Our economy would not have grown over the last 20 years without all those undocumented workers,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “They’ve taken care of our parents, they’ve grown our food, they’ve helped us be comfortable in hotels,” among other things.

“The pressure on them must be unbearable,” he said, shaking his head and tapping a table for emphasis. “They leave their house every day and they just don’t know if they’re going to come back, if they’re going to be separated from their children.”

Mr. Gutierrez is cautious about the upcoming debate on immigration reform: He pegs the chances of passing a comprehensive new law at just over 50 per cent. The issue is rife with distrust on all sides, he notes. In particular, Republicans suspect that Mr. Obama is not committed to passing legislation. They fear he wants to blame any failure on his opponents, helping Democrats in their bid to win back the House of Representatives in the 2014 election.

The wariness also stems from Mr. Gutierrez’s deep involvement in the last attempt to reshape the country’s immigration laws back in 2007, which ultimately foundered in the Senate.

Mr. Gutierrez “knows firsthand how … when push came to shove, we couldn’t get it over the finish line,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, who worked on the 2007 effort from the Democratic side.

If the current attempt fails, Mr. Gutierrez believes that another five years will pass before lawmakers try again.

“In five years, there will be a lot more undocumented [immigrants]. And it will just get more complicated. Families are growing and people are having kids,” he said. “This is a human drama of proportions that shouldn’t be happening.”

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