By: Marin Cogan
Wading into the tricky politics of immigration reform would seem to be a dead end for any Republican these days -- let alone a conservative freshman from Idaho.
But Rep. Raul Labrador, a Puerto Rican-born former immigration lawyer and overnight tea party darling, is doing just that -- meeting with Republicans and conservative opinion-makers to try to build a "conservative consensus" to the seemingly intractable problem that defied a national reform effort nearly four years ago and still roils the political landscape on a state level.
At first blush, Labrador's proposals seem to seek a middle ground: He favors border enforcement, a credible guest-worker program and punishing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. But he doesn't support a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people living in the country illegally.
And the former immigration attorney doesn't feel a particular allegiance to immigrants rights groups on the issue -- nor is he committed to following the orthodoxy of his own conservative base.
"The left claims that Republicans hate Hispanics, which is just the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard, and the right just claims all we need to do is close the borders and do nothing else, which is also ridiculous," Labrador said in an interview in his House office last week.
If Republicans want to come up with a credible face for broader immigration reform, Labrador just might fit the bill. He's unquestionably conservative, he's intimately familiar with immigration law, and he has a compelling personal story. Born in Puerto Rico, Labrador, 43, came to the mainland with his mother at 13, became fluent in English, studied Spanish language and literature at Brigham Young University and set up an immigration law practice just outside of Boise 11 years ago, before joining the state Legislature in 2006.
His family's story -- of a mother who brought her son to the mainland when neither spoke fluent English, who insisted they speak their native Spanish only at home and who graduated from college the same year as her son -- has inspired state and national tea party groups eager to celebrate diversity after liberal groups accused the movement of racism in 2009.
"We represent the three shades of the Republican Party," Labrador told an adoring audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, referring to himself and freshmen Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Allen West (R-Fla.). "Now if only Speaker [John] Boehner was here, you could see the fourth."
"His background and professional knowledge being an immigration attorney provides him with the credibility to make him as expert in this area," says Russ Smerz, president of Tea Party Boise, which endorsed him in the campaign.
Leo Morales, immigration policy director for Idaho's Community Action Network, agrees. "The fact that he is an immigration attorney means that he understands it better than other members of Congress, and he's able to take a more practical approach to the immigration issue," Morales said.
In the state Legislature, Labrador defied easy labeling on his immigration votes -- surprising and frustrating those who expected him to be an ally on immigration issues.
He voted for a bill designating English as the state's official language, saying he wished he could find a reason to vote against it. Yet he was one of the lone Republicans in the state to vote against a bill denying state benefits to illegal immigrants -- arguing that it wouldn't save the state any money. He called the controversial Arizona law targeting undocumented immigrants a "piecemeal solution to the problem of illegal immigration" -- but received the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio during his campaign and praised the Supreme Court decision upholding the law last month.
"There definitely was a frustration during that time, when Rep. Labrador voted the way he voted. And I think he heard it in particular from the Latino constituencies," Morales said.
"What we see in his record is a struggle between his experience as an immigration attorney and knowing that we have a very broken immigration system, as well as his political beliefs and ambition and knowing that the political reality is that one must be seen as tough on immigration," Morales said.
His work in the state house earned him political enemies in both parties. Supporters of his primary opponent, Vaughn Ward, called him "pro-illegal immigrant" and accused him of profiteering off of clients who had knowingly evaded federal immigration law. When Ward suggested Labrador couldn't be trusted to be sufficiently conservative on immigration, Labrador told a local paper his opponent was trying "to appeal to the darkest recesses of the human soul by taking cheap advantage of my work in immigration law and maybe even my ethnic heritage."
Later, his opponent, first-term Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, accused him of "helping illegal immigrants stay in the United States" via his law practice and website, rapidimmigration.com, a legal resource for those seeking citizenship in the U.S. Labrador shot back an impassioned reply at the time, noting that he was a young immigration attorney at the same firm that finalized the documents for Minnick's adopted, foreign-born child to be brought to the U.S.
"My job was to represent people, who, for the most part, had done bad things. In immigration, my job was to help them get straight, to go through the legal immigration system," Labrador said last week, noting that he sent "hundreds" of clients who had come here illegally back to their home countries to apply the right way. "I have never shied away from that. I have represented some bad people," he said.
Labrador dismisses the notion that his work in immigration law might somehow taint his ability to be sufficiently conservative on illegal immigration.
"Everybody knows that I'm to the right of everybody on most issues. That's something people are learning here. They could come to Washington and say, "Oh, he's liberal because he's an immigration lawyer.' Well that didn't work because they'd seen me work in state Legislature for four years; they'd seen my forceful advocacy for conservative values in all issues."
In his first few months of Congress, Labrador said he's reached out to his conservative colleagues to see where they might find agreement on reform. He's also studied the failures of the last immigration debate, meeting with conservative commentator Bill Kristol to discuss the lessons of the summer of 2007. The process is slow going and may not even produce a bill in this Congress. But he would like to build a plan the party can agree to.
And while his support of a guest worker program may cause some conservatives to recoil, it's clear he's not interested in a pathway to citizenship -- a notion that would very likely be anathema to liberal pro-immigrant groups that would like to see a resolution for the 11 million undocumented workers living in the country.
"We can't just give people a pathway. That's just out of question. But then some people want to do only enforcement. We have to do the enforcement and the guest worker program; that's the only way it's going to pass Congress and be accepted by the American people," he said.
"It's not practical," Morales said, of the likelihood that millions would self-deport. "I think members of his party would disagree with that position."
Labrador said "there is some fear that that's not likely, but if you have a carrot-and-stick approach, it will work. You say: Those of you that come out of the shadows and apply for this system and go back home will be able to apply for this. If we have to come find you, you're done; there will be no opportunity for you to apply."
He's also looking at the DREAM Act, a bill meant to provide permanent residency to the children of undocumented immigrants who want to study in the U.S. that is fiercely defended on Capitol Hill by liberal lawmakers and community groups.
"I do believe we have to find a solution to the problem, and I'm not sure what that is, but I don't think the DREAM Act is it," he said "The DREAM Act as it's currently written is so broad that anyone can apply for it."