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Immigrants’ biggest champion in Congress is retiring

As Luis Gutierrez sees it, he’s succeeded at getting Democrats to care about immigrants.

House Natural Resources Committee Holds Hearing  On Oversight Of Puerto Rico's Recovery Efforts Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) made an unusual announcement on Tuesday: He’s not seeking reelection in 2018, not because he’s frustrated with what Congress has become over his 24 years in office, but because he’s been so successful.

“I’m batting .100, doing so, so well,” Gutierrez claimed in a joint press conference with Jesús “Chuy” García, the Cook County commissioner he’s endorsing to replace him. He’s so victorious in Congress, he maintained, that he’s leaving Congress to help build infrastructure in immigrant communities in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

Gutierrez mangled the baseball reference (he presumably meant to say he was batting 1.000 rather than going 1 for 10), but the sentiment seems correct.

After years as something of a thorn in the side of party leadership on the issue of immigration, Gutierrez is leaving a Democratic delegation in Congress that is willing to defend immigrants of any (or no) legal status full-throatedly.

He deserves a ton of credit for the shift. But as much as Gutierrez praised García on Tuesday, no first-term member of Congress can fully replace the influential veteran. Regardless of whether García or likely Democratic primary opponent Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa fills Gutierrez’s seat (a safe Democratic holding) in 2018, Gutierrez’s departure is going to force the question of whether the Democratic Party will stay where he helped push it on immigration reform.

If Democrats have genuinely internalized the agenda of the immigrant rights movement, Gutierrez’s departure won’t mean much of anything. But if the party returns to its Obama-era playbook of moving to the left when needled but getting complacent with silence, Gutierrez will leave a huge hole in the party.

Gutierrez was five years ahead of his party on immigration — and wasn’t afraid to pick fights with them over it

While many Republicans (and large swaths of the American public) have been convinced for a decade that Democrats were “extreme” on immigration or supported “open borders,” it’s only in the past few years that the party, as a whole, has become critical of federal arrests of unauthorized immigrants who have been settled for years in the US.

But while Democrats in Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, tried to hold the center on immigration for fear of losing seats in conservative districts (seats they lost anyway in the 2010 and 2014 elections), and while a federal government led by Barack Obama tried to ratchet up enforcement of immigration law to prove it could be trusted to implement comprehensive immigration reform, Luis Gutierrez was one of the few elected Democratic officials willing to call out his party.

Gutierrez was staunch in defending not just the young immigrants who would have benefited from the DREAM Act (and who were, in 2012, allowed to apply for temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) but their parents as well — defending immigrants as workers and community members, not just as children or students.

And when the Obama administration tried to portray its deportation efforts as focusing on “criminal aliens,” Gutierrez lifted up cases of immigrants who’d been “criminalized” for minor offenses like broken taillights — refusing to give into the framing of “deport felons, not families” that many immigration activists found reductive.

Gutierrez wasn’t just a liberal gadfly. He was among the last optimists working on a House version of the Senate immigration reform bill passed in 2013. Because he had supported comprehensive immigration reform back when it truly was a divisive issue within both political parties, he never quite appeared to buy into the idea that only Democrats could be trusted to pass it. That made him unafraid to call out Democrats when they failed, and urge Republicans to step up — and vice versa.

It’s a really difficult strategy to execute. Be too critical and your party will assume you simply can’t be satisfied. But in large part because he was an establishment Democrat in most other regards (not only was he a longtime Clinton loyalist who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he endorsed Rahm Emanuel’s reelection bid for Chicago mayor in 2015 over his hoped-for successor García), Gutierrez was able to pick a fight on immigration and win it.

Pelosi and Schumer in 2017 don’t sound like Pelosi and Schumer in 2010. They sound like Luis Gutierrez in 2010 — and 2017.

Will the newer generation of Latino politicians be as willing to confront their party?

But Gutierrez had a role beyond his seat. And for now he appears to be confident that he’s leaving Congress in good hands. “He has privately hinted to colleagues in recent years that he wanted to retire,” reports Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, “believing he could do so now that the Hispanic Caucus has more than 30 members, including several younger, more ambitious colleagues.”

Just being a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be outspoken on immigration, or on any other issue. Indeed, Gutierrez’s willingness to criticize the Obama administration wasn’t always shared by caucus leadership. But it’s true that younger members of the caucus, like Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), are outspoken in a way that the older generation of Latino politicians often was not.

The question, though, is whether that new generation reflects a permanent shift in Democrats’ attitudes on immigration — or whether it’s just taking advantage of a moment in which a party out of power is willing to tolerate unusually progressive rhetoric.

Democrats may be more critical of immigration enforcement than they’ve been in recent memory, but right now criticizing is all they can do anyway. They’re out of power in both chambers of Congress and the White House, and are struggling to get even a resolution for DACA recipients — something many Republicans agree is an urgent issue — onto the legislative agenda before DACA protections start to expire at the rate of thousands a day (as opposed to the current rate of several hundred expirations a day).

It’s really not clear whether, should Democrats win back control of the House in 2018 and/or the White House in 2020, they’ll stick to their rhetoric on immigration. It’s hard to criticize a federal law enforcement apparatus you yourself run, and it’s tempting to believe that if you moderate your position, your opponents will have to acknowledge that you’ve moderated it. (Maybe that could happen in the future, but it didn’t happen in Obama’s first term.)

And there will always be leaders in the party who believe that the only way to win elections is to shut up about any issue that makes white people feel uncomfortable.

If the Democratic Party, as an institution, decides that criticizing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on the regular is no longer a good look, it’s going to get uncomfortable for young, ambitious Latinos in Congress who continue to criticize. They’ll have to choose between shutting up and going along (the strategy taken by, say, former California Rep. Xavier Becerra) or making noise and being obnoxious — the Gutierrez strategy.

Maybe they’ll never have to choose. Maybe Democrats really have decided that they believe their rhetoric about welcoming and inclusion. But without Gutierrez, or a Gutierrez-type figure, squawking at them when they get complacent, the possibility of complacency will be that much more imminent.