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Juan José Gutiérrez: A Champion of Immigrant Rights

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Juan José Gutiérrez was the executive director of a Boyle Heights organization called One Stop Immigration when a group of citizens in Orange County decided to put an initiative on the ballot targeting services to undocumented immigrants.

Proposition 187 would have denied non-emergency health care, public education and other services to undocumented immigrants. It would allow state officials to verify people's legal status or deny services to those suspected of not being in the country legally.

Gutiérrez, along with regional directors of the organization in Pomona and Santa Bárbara, worked on a plan to mobilize immigrants to march against the voter initiative.

He was an immigrant himself, born in Tuxpan, Jalisco, in 1957, one of six children. He attended schools in México and Los Angeles and graduated from Garfield High School in East L.A., where he also was student president and captain of the football team.

In 1985, he became executive director of One Stop Immigration, a nonprofit that provided classes in English, civics and U.S. history to immigrants. The nonprofit also concerned itself with immigrant rights.

In 1994, Gutierrez was one of the lead organizers of a march against the voter initiative 187. Over the years, he continued to be a high profile immigrant rights activist in the Los Angeles area, pushing for immigration reform and changes in immigration policy. 

As he and other activists made plans for the march, which was being discouraged by many Democratic mainstream politicians in California as potentially “counterproductive,” Gutiérrez went to a conference in San Jose to talk about Proposition 187.

In that conference, Gutiérrez got in touch with then labor leader Gil Cedillo, who was the general manager of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 660), the largest labor union in Los Angeles.

"We said, 'It seems like we are on the same side, we should work together on this,'" he recalls. Cedillo helped the ragtag group get funds for the march and rally the support of organized labor.

Gutiérrez remembers the day of the march as “historic and festive,” a day that “marked what the Latino community had been to that point and what the community went on to become after the march.”

After 1994, Gutiérrez kept working in the immigrants-rights arena, pushing for immigration reform and against other initiatives that would emerge in California, targeting minorities and immigrants.

He graduated as a lawyer at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1996 and is currently the president of Vamos Unidos USA, a legal services company founded in 2008 as well as continuing as executive director of One Stop Immigration and Educational Center (OSIEC).

"My whole life I've worked providing legal and educational services to immigrants," he says, estimating that OSIEC helped legalize more than 68,000 immigrants, mainly from Latin America, and to naturalize more than 26,000 people.

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