Puerto Rican, Mormon congressman bridging gap in immigration debate

Feb 6 2013 - 6:12pm

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, seated at right, waits for the start of the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on America's Immigration System on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Other members waiting for the hearing to start include, from left, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., Rep. Doug Collins, R-Fla., Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, seated at right, waits for the start of the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on America's Immigration System on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Other members waiting for the hearing to start include, from left, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., Rep. Doug Collins, R-Fla., Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

BOISE, Idaho -- Raul R. Labrador is the only Puerto Rican, Mormon, tea-party immigration lawyer in Congress, which the Idaho Republican figures makes him the perfect bridge between the GOP's hard-line resistance to an immigration overhaul and the urgent sense among Democrats that the November election won them a free hand on the issue.

Labrador spent his first two years in Congress earning and burnishing a reputation as not just a "no" but a "hell no" vote on just about every spending and fiscal bill that has come across his desk. But on immigration, he is seeking a different role.

Elected to the House in the tea party wave of 2010, he has been conducting quiet talks with Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the House's leading liberal immigration advocate. Recently, he requested a meeting with President Barack Obama, the nemesis to many in his party and his congressional class, to discuss working together on the issue.

And he's expressed a willingness to act as an evangelist for reform, offering to travel the country to conservative districts to explain why fixing a broken system does not mean offering amnesty.

"Because I've proven myself to be a conservative, people are willing to listen to what I have to say on this issue," he said last week over lunch a few blocks from the Idaho Capitol.

The position could cast Labrador as something of the House's version of Marco Rubio, the conservative Florida senator who last week signed onto a bipartisan framework for immigration change and has been working relentlessly to sell it on right-wing TV and radio.

But already, there is pressure back home for Labrador, even as he has carefully positioned himself a little to the right of Rubio. He has offered pointed criticisms of the Senate plan his Florida colleague has been working so feverishly to promote -- a sign of the treacherous minefield immigration legislation will face this year in the GOP-held House.

Skepticism about the effort runs deep among House Republicans and is likely to be on display as the House Judiciary Committee begins what its chairman has promised will be a long series of hearings on the issue.

The hearings will be Labrador's first chance to publicly test his new role. Despite tangling with House leaders in recent months, he was named to the key panel in December, a sign the leaders plan to lean on him as a critical liaison in the immigration discussion.

Labrador -- whose first language was Spanish and who speaks English with a slight accent -- has been pushing changes to the law since his first campaign. He said his own election challenges the party's conventional wisdom about what its voters want on the issue.

"I don't think he read the party right," Labrador said of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who veered to the right on the issue and advocated encouraging undocumented immigrants to "self-deport."

"He could have been a leader," Labrador continued. "It's one of the stumbling blocks that I see for some Republicans. They're moderate on every other issue, and they think this is the one issue where they have to become conservatives.

"I feel the reverse."

Labrador argues that deporting an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants would bankrupt the country and sap industries that rely on their labor. Instead, he favors allowing those without documents to seek a nonimmigrant visa -- part of a new, robust guest-worker program. It would allow them to step forward and gain legal status after paying a fine, without fear of deportation.

But, he says, normalized residents should only be able to seek a green card, which offers permanent residency and eventually citizenship, if they qualify under existing, already backlogged channels.

He stresses he cannot support legislation that provides a new path to citizenship, a goal he sees as more important to Democratic activists seeking new Hispanic votes than immigrants themselves.

He has been critical of the Senate blueprint for endorsing eventual citizenship, an assessment that has made it easier for other Republicans to voice opposition as well, even as the party gropes for an immigration position that could stem its losses with the country's growing number of Hispanic voters.

Obama has said he believes a new system must include a clear path to citizenship for those here without documents.

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Labrador's middle-ground approach has still earned him significant pushback in his predominately white district, which stretches from Boise's western suburbs into Idaho's isolated northern reaches.

Last week, he spent nearly 30 minutes laying out his views during an afternoon talk-show here last week.

"What part of illegal does Mr. Labrador not understand?" asked the first caller, after the interview concluded.

That night, at a packed town-hall-style meeting in a Boise suburb, Labrador earned strong applause when he rejected citizenship for those here illegally but skeptical looks when he rejected their deportation.

He could only nod sympathetically as retired teacher David Smith asked that he do more to repel the "invasion" of the nation.

"You have 12 to 20 million people coming in against the laws of the nation, violating our sovereignty," Smith said. "That's not immigration. That's an invasion."

In an interview, Labrador said he is sympathetic to that view. But after two years of hearing similar comments in his district, he said he has convinced most of his constituents that the immigration system is failing, hurting not just illegal immigrants but also those want to come to the country legally and companies in need of workers.

Republicans should seek change, he said, to fix an example of inefficient government.

"I think this is something they can live with," he said of his ideas. "I think the party's ready for this. We just need visionary leaders who can explain it."

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Labrador has been in touch with six House members -- three Democrats, including Gutierrez, and three Republicans. Two House aides confirmed they have been working in secret toward the introduction of a bipartisan immigration bill.

The group aims to complete its work shortly before or after Obama delivers his State of the Union address next week, as a parallel effort to the Senate group that includes Rubio.

It is not yet clear whether Labrador will sign on to that proposal; the legislators involved have pledged silence.

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Most lawmakers expect real action to begin in the Senate, but Labrador's presence could offer the group a major boost. His absence could be a warning sign about the difficulties of luring the House's most conservative members to the effort.

"Clearly, we have some major differences," Labrador said of himself and Gutierrez, who believes illegal immigrants need to know that citizenship is available in a reformed system.

Gutierrez said he and Labrador speak weekly on the issue. But he stressed that the talks have remained preliminary and the process is only beginning.

"You know how it is in the beginning of a romance. It's always good," Gutierrez said.

Still, he said, it is unrealistic to expect a Chicago Democrat and an Idaho tea party member to start from the same place. "What I believe," he said, "is that we have to keep the conversation going."

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Ironically, the same Hispanic roots that Labrador acknowledges sometimes have earned him distrust at home do little to boost his credibility with immigrants, who know he was born a citizen.

He insists that his credibility on the issue comes not from his Hispanic background but from his years navigating the immigration system as a lawyer.

"I met in my practice with thousands of people who were here illegally," he said. "Some of their stories are sympathetic. Some, not so much."

His journey to Idaho, of all places, is what he calls a "short story of love."

He was raised by a single mother, who moved the family to Las Vegas when he was 13. Looking for a way to straighten out her son after he fell in with a group of troubled kids, his mother took the advice of a co-worker at Caesars Palace and enrolled Labrador in a Mormon youth program.

He eventually converted to the religion and attended Brigham Young University, where he met his Boise-bred wife.

For now, Labrador doesn't have the sit-down meeting he requested Obama. But the White House responded to his inquiry almost immediately and offered him a session with a policy staff member working on immigration. He views the response as a good start.

"I just don't think there's a better person or voice in the House right now to deal with this issue," he said.

 

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