During midlife, many men of Robert Gittelson’s means and background stray off their life course to buy a Porsche, run a marathon or even have an affair.
Gittelson, 52, semi-retired from a successful clothing manufacturing business, is trying go change the world. For the past two years, the Los Angeles businessman has thrown himself into a quixotic campaign, much of it in Washington, to pass immigration reform legislation.
“I guess this is my midlife crisis,” says Gittelson, who has become one of the leading behind-the-scenes voices pressing for passage of immigration reform and the DREAM Act. “I’m channeling it into something constructive.”
Since 2010, Gittelson has been the point man of a crusade by an unlikely coalition calling itself the Conservatives for Immigration Reform, which is adamantly in favor of creating a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
“We are composed of the most important faith leaders in the evangelical right wing community of this country,” said Gittelson, a co-founder of the group. “These are people who are staunch conservatives, the base of the Republican Party, but that do want to do comprehensive immigration reform based on moral and ethical reasons.
“For that reason, they keep basically preaching to their congregations and to the country why this is such an urgent national cause, and hopefully this is slowly but surely creating a little bit of what we call softening of the grass roots within the Republican constituencies so that they see that there’s another side to the coin.”
To do that, Gittelson has been living out of motels and hotels in Washington over the past two years as he has knocked on doors of members of the House, the Senate and staff members at the White House.
“If we can unite as a country around our shared values,” he said. “I can see a pathway forward.”
Robert Gittelson on immigration
In 2010, along with the Rev. James A. Tolle, senior pastor of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Gittelson was among the delegation that sat on the same stage as President Barack Obama when he made one of his speeches asking Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Gittelson, “and let’s face it—it’s not done yet.”
“What we’re really trying to do is just explain the truth—that immigrants are extremely important for our economy, for our society, for our competitiveness, for so many different reasons, and they’ve gotten such a bad rap over the last four or five years that people who are harboring such inconceivable misconceptions.”
“This is just such a misunderstood issue.”
In Gittelson, though, immigration reform advocates may have their most articulate, if unlikeliest, defender, especially coming out of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley where the issue engenders strong and even hateful opposition from many white residents who resent the recent waves of illegal immigrants.
But Gittelson has, in the street vernacular of the day, walked his talk. And, unlike most of those championing immigration reform in the country, he is white.
“If you think of the United States as a melting pot,” he says, “we’re at ground zero right here in the San Fernando Valley of being a Melting Pot. My own family: My brother’s married to someone from El Salvador. My father is married to someone from Korea. So this is a personal issue to me.”
But both his father and brother’s wives are not an issue in the immigration reform campaign. One was a naturalized citizen and the other was in the U. S. on a visa when they met their spouses. Gittelson’s own wife, Patricia, is an immigration attorney.
Gittelson plays down his own personal sacrifice. His expenses in Washington are coming out of his own pocket, and the commute from one coast to the other is yet another expense.
“Robert has been unselfish in his work, and he has spent a significant amount of time and resources trying to convince anyone to pay any kind of attention,” says longtime Los Angeles immigration reform advocate Juan Jose Gutierrez. “He deserves a lot of credit for shepherding any kind of effort that would move the process forward.”
For Gittelson, the personal side of immigration reform is also his life’s work. He made his living and built a business in an industry that in Los Angeles has historically been associated with cheap immigrant labor and garment sweatshops.
But Gittelson adamantly denies ever having been part of any immigrant exploitation.
“There are sweatshops. I don’t know about now,” he says. “When I first started in business back in the ’70s, I did go into some Chinese shops. I couldn’t say for sure that they were sweatshops, but I got the impression they might have been somewhat reckless with overtime laws and things like that.”
Robert Gittelson is in it for the long haul
Gittelson, though, is no Johnny-come-lately to immigration reform advocacy. For the last seven years, he has been writing on the issue for pro-immigration publications and Internet sites, as well as speaking out at forums and colleges and universities.
“There are detractors among us that have drawn a line in the sand, and they will call anything short of deportation—either by the government or through “self-deportation,” says Gittelson. “Therefore, they will call any version of the DREAM Act that allows these kids to stay in America amnesty, regardless of the particulars of the bill.”
“Our coalition finds that thinking to be rather short-sighted and frankly intolerant. We urge Americans to look at this measure through a more just and compassionate lens. In America, we don’t visit the sins or iniquities of the parents upon their children. We value the Rule of Law, but strive to reconcile the rule of law with our Judeo-Christian values of compassion and tolerance.”
Immigration reform advocates have known for a while that to have any chance for passage, they need Republican support.
Enter Gittelson, who with other faith-based leaders, galvanized together into their new group appealing to conservatives but also to the White House.
Gittelson’s younger brother Gerry, a Los Angeles sportswriter, recalls a speech Obama made in 2010 after having lunch with Robert two weeks before.
“Basically he told me everything that he felt Obama needed to say and what to say,” says Gerry Gittelson. “And the president said exactly what my brother had implored his advisers that he had to say.”
“There’s not many people who can touch millions of other people, and it really touched me that he was able to reach out to millions. I’m so proud of my brother and what he’s done.”
Still some conservatives are suspicious of Robert Gittelson.
“My sense was that he is another one of these faux conservatives trying to make the pro-amnesty movement look more politically diverse than it really is,” says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank opposing immigration reform legislation.
But Robert Gittelson said he has been an independent since first registering to vote—more accurately as “Decline to State” in California.
“To this day I’ve remained an independent,” he says, “and over eight presidential elections, I’ve voted four times for Republicans and four times for Democrats. I’m really a true independent.”
Robert Gittelson, like other immigration reform advocates, knows he’s working uphill.
“There’s a lot of political realities that are just so difficult to overcome,” he says. “To this date, the politics of this issue have overridden the reality of this issue.”