CHICAGO–One way to measure the chasm that Congress must bridge to complete comprehensive immigration reform after years of stalemate is to consider the cultural, economic, and demographic distance between two restaurants.
One of them is El Faro, a popular Mexican place in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon late this winter, El Faro was buzzing, families filling every seat in the sun-splashed dining room. Three generations of the same family congregated at many of the tables, with children abounding. The restaurant ran through high chairs almost as fast as tortilla chips and marinated jalapenos. Waitresses carrying bistec a la Mexicana and costillitas en salsa verde squeezed through the happy tumult like surfers calmly riding a wave. Almost everyone in the room was Hispanic.
Sitting toward the back of the dining room was Luis Gutierrez, the area’s Democratic representative in the U.S. House. A former Chicago alderman, Gutierrez has been one of the most forceful voices on immigration since arriving in Congress in 1993. Fiery in front of a microphone, Gutierrez in person is slight and soft-spoken. But a visiting movie star would not have attracted more attention this day: A continuous procession of men and women, usually with children in tow, drifted to his table. Almost as soon as each visitor finished, another hesitantly approached.
“Everything [in Little Village] is a connection between those who are here and those who are in Mexico.”—Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
Some came to have their photo taken with him or ask for an autograph. Others said they just wanted to thank Gutierrez for his work on the immigration issue (which has included stiff criticism of President Obama’s increase in deportations). But most came looking for help with immigration problems for themselves or relatives. The range of these problems was kaleidoscopic. Elizabeth Chavez, the president of a local travel agency, was worried about a close relative, who was operating a small grocery store but still could not buy a house for her family because she was in the U.S. illegally. “She is giving jobs to people because she has the grocery store,” Chavez said. “And she wants to purchase a house, but she says, ‘If I have to leave the country what will I do?’ ” Another woman, with her husband and two young children, all three of them American citizens, came to the table in tears because her own application for citizenship had hit a snag. In these conversations, the anticipation that Washington may soon provide a path to legal status for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally throbbed with almost physical force. “When that man says to me, ‘Thanks for supporting us,’ he’s not talking about health care,” Gutierrez said after one visitor left. “He’s talking about what they view as a civil-rights, and human-rights, struggle.”
A few weeks later, on a brisk spring morning, the regular breakfast crowd filed into another restaurant—Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C. The spot is a routine stop for Republican presidential candidates visiting this staunchly conservative region, and the television mounted in the corner was tuned, inevitably, to Fox News. Here the tables were also mostly filled with groups: friends swapping old stories over fresh coffee in a regular morning get-together; salesmen plotting their day’s targets; what looked like the entire football offensive line from nearby Furman University; a few families. The waitresses deftly balancing plates of eggs and chicken sausage and salty slabs of country ham seemed to know everyone by name. Apart from a few African-Americans, the crowd was preponderantly white.
Immigration reform probably has a better chance of passing Congress this year than at any point since President Reagan signed sweeping legislation that legalized millions of undocumented immigrants in 1986. The sense of momentum intensified earlier this week when a bipartisan group of senators led by Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced their long-awaited bipartisan plan. But immigration legislation still faces a difficult passage through the House, and one reason is encapsulated by the gap between the crowds at El Faro and Tommy’s: There is an enormous racial gulf in the districts represented by House Democrats and Republicans. While most Republicans represent districts dominated by whites, most Democrats hold districts in which minorities are more common than nationally.
That contrast creates very different political incentives as House members in each party grapple with these issues. In districts like Gutierrez’s, immigration reform is a matter of pressing personal experience that shapes every aspect of daily life. But it is much more of an abstract question of values and principles in preponderantly white districts. In Greenville and Spartanburg, which are represented by two-term Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, it is common to find opposition to any amnesty or path to citizenship expressed around the simple conviction that it is wrong to reward people who have broken the law.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.