Gutierrez’ remarks underscored the divide that remains in the Republican Party between those who embrace free trade and immigration as crucial cogs in the county’s economic wheel and those supporting Trump, who ascended to the presidency on the strength of pledges to rip up trade deals and build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Gutierrez served in George W. Bush’s administration, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton during the campaign, saying Trump’s economic policies would be “a disaster.”
He did not offer such a stark assessment on Monday.
“I did not come to Palm Beach County to pick a political fight,” he told Forum Club members at the Kravis Center.
Still, Gutierrez outlined a vision that, before Trump, was standard fare for many Republicans.
On immigration, Gutierrez said the path forward should be one that allows foreign workers to do jobs Americans have not rushed to fill.
“There is such a thing as jobs Americans won’t do,” he said, arguing that, for him, “immigration is an economic issue.”
The current immigration system is outdated, he said.
“We have laws that don’t work,” Gutierrez said. “We have laws that go back to the ’40s and ’50s. Until we fix that, we will have dysfunction.”
Trump opened his presidential campaign by saying Mexico was sending rapists and drug mules into the U.S. He called for the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which he has promised to have pay for it.
Democrats and some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have scoffed at the notion that Mexico will pay for the wall.
Gutierrez said talk of a wall oversimplifies a problem that has many facets.
“We talk about a border wall as if it’s the solution for immigration,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is an economic issue. The problem is we love soundbites. We love headlines. We love slogans.”
The former Commerce secretary also broke with Trump on the issue of free trade.
Spurning decades of Republican orthodoxy, Trump has said the North American Free Trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada is a bad deal for the U.S. He has vowed to renegotiate it, and he has already signed an executive order rescinding presidential support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Asian nations.
Poorly negotiated trade deals have cost Americans jobs, Trump has argued. That argument boosted his fortunes in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, where many blue collar workers blame the loss of their jobs on trade deals that made it easier for companies to move plants out of the country.
Gutierrez, however, said those job losses weren’t tied to trade deals or the rise of China, a frequent Trump foil.
“I don’t think the biggest risk to jobs is NAFTA,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t think the biggest risk to jobs in China.”
Gutierrez said technology and automation are the reasons some blue collar workers have lost jobs.
Trump has promised to keep factories in the U.S. and lure back others that have left. Without mentioning Trump by name, Gutierrez made clear he didn’t have much use for that promise, either.
“We’re sounding like it’s the 1980s,” he said. “‘Let’s get that factory back here.’”
Trump has pledged to keep the U.S. out of the TPP, a stance Gutierrez said threatens the prospects of American firms that could do business in Asia.
“Our companies won’t have entry into Asia unless they build a plant there,” he said. “China is moving in. We can’t just cede this territory. Our companies need the business.”
Gutierrez agreed with Trump on the need to upgrade the country’s airports and sea ports. Trump has pledged to launch a $1 trillion effort to upgrade roads, bridges, airports and sea ports.
“We’ve definitely fallen behind,” Gutierrez said.
On Cuba, the former Commerce secretary and Trump again are on opposite sides of the debate.
President Barack Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba and reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana.
Trump took to Twitter to note that the Obama-era opening might not stand during his presidency.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” he tweeted in November.
Gutierrez, a Cuban native who was brought to the U.S. when his parents left the island in 1960, said he was initially skeptical about Obama’s efforts in Cuba. But he returned to Cuba for the first time when the U.S. reopened its embassy there in August 2015.
He has returned 14 times since then, he said.
“They’re opening up their economy,” Gutierrez said. “Cuba is changing, and we need to change with it. Let’s let the change happen gradually. Let it happen at their pace, and let it happen peacefully.”