Former Latino congressman Luis Gutiérrez backs Joe Biden to 'crush' Trump racism

Had it not been for Black Americans making possible the passage of the Voting Rights Act, former congressman Luis Gutiérrez said he’d never been able to get elected.

So on Friday morning, Gutiérrez headed to his early voting site in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, to cast the only ballot he’ll get to cast for president.

Just before doing so, Gutiérrez told NBC News by phone that he is officially endorsing Biden, which will add his usually candid and biting voice to the campaign to drum up support for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and attempt to raise Latino turnout amid a pandemic that is hitting Latinos hard.

“It’s time we really crush the institutional racism of Donald Trump. He’s like racist in chief in the White House," Gutiérrez said.

Gutiérrez, who retired from Congress last year after 26 years in the U.S. House, is a well-known voice in the Latino community, in particular as a champion for immigrants and for Puerto Rico.

Related: Immigration advocate Frank Sharry says "it will take a village" to replace Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has been a "torch bearer, deal maker and a street fighter."

He was the first Latino member of Congress to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama when Obama made his first bid for president. He later became a top critic of the Obama administration’s record deportations, an issue that is being raised by Trump supporters and Biden critics in this election.

“I understand how we had to challenge Barack Obama and Joe Biden,” Gutiérrez said, “That was a presidency we could challenge, that would change—that was the difference with Barack," he said.

After Obama was criticized for deportations, "in June of 2012, he issued DACA," said Gutiérrez, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gave young immigrants without legal status a reprieve from deportations and permission to work and go to school.

The Trump administration is continuing an effort to try to strip DACA from people who have the benefit under the approval of the Department of Homeland Security, after the Supreme Court blocked the administration from immediately ending it.

Gutiérrez said he's pushing for an administration that would make Muslims feel welcome in America, that would advance rights for the LGBTQ community and that would treat women as fully equal.

“Obama and Biden would never have treated the people of Puerto Rico with the brutality this administration has. Even today, he’s holding up funds appropriated for the people of Puerto Rico," Gutiérrez said, adding that Trump has "dehumanized the people of Puerto Rico," saying for example that the island had broken the U.S. budget.

“He said he is the best thing that happened to Puerto Rico. No, you are our nightmare,” said Gutiérrez.

Back in Puerto Rico, and voting in their primary

The former congressman now lives in Puerto Rico, where he spent some of his childhood and has family roots. He was born and raised in Chicago and was elected to political offices from there.

Islanders can vote in the Democratic party primary Sunday, postponed from March. But because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, its residents cannot vote for president in the general election in November.

The island is beset with financial and governing problems and upheaval. It continues its recovery from the devastation left by the 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Maria and its aftermath and earthquakes earlier this year that are still shaking the island. Gutiérrez said he can feel the ongoing tremors and earthquakes regularly even though he is far from the epicenter in Guánica.

“It’s like my poor island of Puerto Rico, there isn’t enough harm that can come to her,” he said.

Latinos are the second largest group of voters in this year’s election, with 32 million Latinos eligible to vote, although less than half were registered in 2018. The vote is in play in this year's election.

On Friday, both campaigns were touting how their economic strategies will benefit Latinos, who had the highest unemployment levels in April and May and second highest to African Americans in June because of shutdowns of businesses and loss of jobs occurring as the nation contends as coronavirus spreads and cases spike in Latino community.

Gutiérrez said there certainly is more the Biden campaign can do to rally Latino voters to the polls and hopes he helps do that. He supported Warren and Sanders early in the Democratic primary, but he said he is doing what he hopes Latinos and others will do—vote early and for Biden.

“With endorsement,” he said, “also comes responsibility.”

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