U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a leading House negotiator on immigration reform, describes how nasty the infighting can get on that deeply divisive legislation.
“I can show you the knife wounds I’ve suffered from both the left and right on this issue,” he told The Palm Beach Post.
Diaz-Balart said the bipartisan House members who negotiated the issue for four years have completed their bill and are awaiting an “opportune” moment to release it. But he warns that “things are sure to get ugly again” before legislation moves out of the House and goes to conference with the Senate, which has already passed a version.
The Senate bill includes a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented persons in the United States, and House Democrats want the same thing. But Republicans hold 234 House seats, 33 more than Democrats, and the majority of those Republicans are believed to oppose the path to citizenship, portending a brawl when Congress reconvenes this week.
One hopeful scenario that Democrats are rehearsing is that a version of the bill including a chance at citizenship emerges from the conference with the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner allows it to come to the House floor.
Twenty House Republicans have constituencies that are 30 percent or more Latino. Some of those members, and maybe others in contested districts – including Florida members – are already being approached by Democrats and warned that they should not anger their Latino constituents by voting against immigration.
The reform supporters are hoping that enough Republicans join Democrats to get the 218 votes they need.
The Latino voter registration organization Mi Familia Vota – My Family Votes – is also warning certain GOP House members.
“We plan to run citizenship campaigns and voter-registration campaigns between now and the elections next year,” said a group spokeswoman, Lizette Escobedo, referring to Congress members they might target.
At the same time, most GOP House members have to worry about primary challenges from conservative candidates in next year’s elections if they vote for citizenship, which means they are feeling pressure from both sides. The issue is so touchy in the GOP House that Diaz-Balart avoids mentioning it explicitly.
“I have not once uttered the phrase ’path to citizenship,’ ” he reminds a reporter near the end of the interview.
Closer on some points than others
Diaz Balart would not discuss in detail the House bill, sticking to an agreement with fellow negotiators. But he talked about his own positions and being an author of the bill. As a likely candidate to be a conference negotiator with the Senate, those positions are significant.
Comparing Diaz-Balart’s stances with the Senate bill indicates that in some aspects of the legislation the two chambers may be close.
For example, the Senate bill includes mandatory use of E-Verify, a system by which employers check the legal status of all people they hire, and also an enhanced electronic monitoring system at U.S. ports and airports to ensure that those who enter the United States on visas leave when they should.
Diaz-Balart will only say the House bill calls for “robust, enforceable interior security,” but he expresses no specific qualms with the Senate version.
The Senate bill also includes more visas for foreign high-tech workers and an expedited path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” undocumented people brought here as children. Diaz Balart voiced his support for both those policies.
Where the House will almost certainly deviate from the Senate is on border security. House Republicans are expected to ask for more explicit “triggers,” specific goals in stopping illegal border crossings before the legalization of the undocumented and their road to permanent residence can continue. Last week, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, Diaz-Balart’s close colleague in the House, specifically recommended such triggers.
Another place the House bill will probably differ from that of the Senate is on the question of low-skilled guestworker visas. For the Senate bill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO negotiated an agreement that would allow 20,000 such workers into the country the first year, escalating to 75,000 in 2019. Many business owners say that initial number is far too low, and Diaz-Balart agrees.
“It has to work in a way that deals with actual economic realities, and those numbers don’t add up,” he said. “It’s not workable.”
He believes such low visa numbers will lead to more illegal border crossings and more employers using illegal workers. Businesses can expect higher numbers from the House, but just how that might affect labor’s support of a final bill is unknown.
The crucial issue will be the path to citizenship for the undocumented. Diaz-Balart makes no bones about his pro-citizenship position.
“It would be very detrimental to have a group of folks who are here permanently and legally and who want to put their hands on their hearts and pledge allegiance to the U.S. and say they can’t do that,” he says. He insists it must be “earned citizenship,” but so does the Senate bill, with a 13-year waiting period, and the payment of fines and back taxes and the need to pass background checks.
But last week U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, through which the immigration issue must pass, said he could not support a “special path to citizenship” for the undocumented.
Goodlatte has ushered several immigration-related bill through his committee in recent weeks, dealing with issues such as E-Verify and guestworkers. Some Washington observers predict the House will, in the end, take that piecemeal approach because it will be easier to get the GOP members to agree to tough individual measures than one large comprehensive bill.
“That’s a possibility,” Diaz-Balart concedes, although he is still fighting for a comprehensive House bill.
Affects on GOP votes unclear
Once the House legislation goes to conference, the Senate could make concessions on certain issues. But Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the GOP authors of the Senate bill, has stated that “no way” can a conference bill pass the Senate without a path to citizenship included.
The question then becomes what will happen in the House if such a bill comes out of conference. The first question will be if House Speaker John Boehner will allow it to reach the floor for a vote.
The GOP’s Hastert rule, named after former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, says a bill can only come to the floor if a majority of the Republican caucus approves. But that rule is nonbinding and Boehner could waive it.
Then the issue will be how many Republicans could be persuaded to vote for a path to citizenship. Republicans with large Latino constituencies seem to be the place to start, but Larry Sabato, a political scientist from the University of Virginia, says that is not necessarily so.
“What those numbers don’t tell you is how many of those Hispanics vote in the Republican primary,” he says. “In most cases it is very few. Since most of those districts are solidly Republican and not competitive, all that really matters is who wins the primary.”
But not all those seats are sure things for Republicans. Democrats have named 23 Republicans who they see as vulnerable on the issue because of a combination of their Latino constituencies, their narrow margins of victory in November and the strength that President Barack Obama showed in their districts in 2012.
Four Florida Congress members are on that list. Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen both have constituencies that are more than two-thirds Latino and are supporters of the immigration overhaul. Dan Webster of Winter Garden has a Latino constituency of about 15 percent, mostly Puerto Ricans. Bill Young of Indian Shores has a smaller Latino constituency, but Obama won his district in November. Democrats see them all as “persuadable.”
University of Central Florida political observer Sean Snaith says that most Republicans have so few Latinos in their districts that it won’t be an issue for them.
“But I’m not saying some people with larger Latino constituencies might not defect,” he said. “If your goal is re-election you have to do the calculations. They may be able to vote to cover their own backsides with their Hispanic voters, with the hopes that a bill they don’t like will, in the end, not make it through the House.”
Staff Writer John Lantigua covers immigration for The Palm Beach Post, as Congress debates reforms that affect immigrant families, American workers and industries from hospitality to agriculture.