Q&A with Jeff Flake on immigration: ‘Citizenship ought to be earned and valued’

As I report in Monday's Washington Post, the divide among Republicans over the issue of immigration is perhaps best understood by looking at Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who both say they want to revamp the nation's immigration system, but differ on how best to do so.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). (Post)

I recently spoke with Flake in his new offices in the Russell Senate Office Building. The office was so new that he'd yet to hang any pictures on the wall and his staff was still organizing its work space.

What follows is a portion of the interview that focused on Flake's work on immigration and the criticisms he's faced for engaging on the issue:

Ed O'Keefe: What permitted the immigration debate and the formation of the "Group of Eight" to happen this year? What made everyone understand that this issue had to be addressed this year? 

Jeff Flake: "I think that – that for Republicans, some of us have been working on this for a while, that for substantive reasons, policy reasons, we’ve got to do this. Certainly, coming from Arizona, this is, Arizonans have paid the price for the failure of the federal government to fix this problem. There’s health-care costs, education costs, criminal justice costs, you name it. Incarceration. It’s been tough for Arizona. So we’ve recognized for a while that it needs to be fixed.

"Then on the Democratic side, President Obama made  a promise in his first run that he would tackle this issue and didn’t in the first term and felt that he needed to now. I know there are some on my side of the aisle who question how sincere the president is, I think he is sincere, I think he does want to get this done and maybe not every Democrat is, just like every Republican isn’t, but I think you have a big enough group in each party that actually want to move this issue.

"And that’s what made the Gang of Eight work. Pretty quickly we determined that everybody around that table wanted to do this. We weren’t looking to score political points."

Why did you want to be a member of the Gang of Eight and when did you signal to folks that you wanted to be involved?

"Well, I think if you’re from Arizona and there’s an immigration debate happening, you’d better be part of it. You want to make sure that your state is represented and your needs there are at the table. So I think, and I’d been involved with Colby and Gutierrez and others in the House and with Kennedy and McCain and others in the Senate back in 2006 and 2007. So I’d already been involved in this issue and obviously looked to return to it if we could.

"But also, I got to know Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin in the House gym, frankly. They were already in the Senate, but over the past several years they used to come in to the House gym and I got to know them there and talked a lot about immigration."

Schumer still wears those really short shorts, right? I’ve heard that from others.

"Ha, yeah. Now they work out in the Senate gym, they don’t go over to the House anymore. But that’s where I got to know them.

"And when I got over here, as early as December, Schumer approached me and wondered if I’d be a part of it. Obviously, with McCain in there as well and the others it was just a natural to get involved."

We’ve heard a lot more from the other members about this and their work on it. Where did you fit in in those conversations?

"Part of it was the border security part. Both Sen. McCain and I promised to make sure that we have a secure border. We saw this as a great opportunity to get what Arizonans needed in that regard, that element certainly.

"I grew up on a ranch and farm around migrant labor, working with migrant labor. I’ve never been able to view those who come here to work as a criminal class. I’ve never been able to do that. So I bring that perspective, I guess, to it.

"But also, I think one of the major failures that isn’t talked about much with regard to [the 1986 immigration law], is that we legalized people but didn’t secure the border. Few people talk about why we didn’t secure the border. We didn’t have guest worker plans sufficient to account for our labor needs in that ’86 law. So as soon as it was signed into law, it was out of date.

"And because we didn’t have sufficient programs to account for our labor needs, we just turned our heads and let them come. It was a conscious decision, frankly, by the federal government not to secure the border, because if you had a secure border, then we’d have labor needs that would go unmet. So we just kind of -- with a wink and a nod -- let it come. And when the economy was moving it seemed to be okay. But then you have criminal elements and drug cartels and national security concerns that come with a porous border that really came to this point.

"So my second role there was to push for a robust, meaningful guest worker program. Both on the high-tech side – I had introduced years ago the Staple Act, staple a green card to the diploma – and the language we had in that bill is basically in this bill. And then also on the low-skilled side, to have a W visa program that worked. There were efforts by the unions certainly here to cut out construction completely, although we wish it were more robust and a bigger problem, we at least have construction in here and some of the other trades."

How did the conversations go between the eight of you in the gang? Was it you guys meeting, your chiefs of staff?

"The staff was meeting constantly, but we had regularly scheduled meetings, usually two or three a week, alternating between Sen. McCain and Sen. Schumer’s office. Or if we were close to votes, it was in S. 219.

"So we would basically go over border security one day, H1-Bs the next. Pick a different topic – and come to some kind of agreement, task the staff with drafting language and connecting the dots and the staff would do what they could and when they couldn’t reach agreement they would take the list and we would come up the next time and say, okay, this was left unaddressed, we’d try to address it. It involved a lot of calls as well, both conference calls, and Chuck Schumer was the main driver on that side. And he has a knack for memorizing cell phone numbers, unfortunately. I fielded a lot of his calls."

Was that the hardest issue to deal with?

"The hardest issue in the negotiations was the low-skilled temporary visa programs. The unions really came down hard on construction, for example, and on caps and quotas and requirements. Wage rates. And to come to an agreement there, that was the toughest. At one point, it looked like we were going to throw in the towel.

How about over the three weeks of the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the bill?

"It depends on who you ask. For myself and Lindsey [Graham], voting against a couple of the border security elements that we felt would strengthen the bill. But we wanted to protect the integrity of the agreement, particularly on triggers. And some of these will be addressed on the floor and we need to strengthen certain provisions, but that’s not fun, voting against things that you would agree with philosophically."

This was the idea that everything had to be in place along the border?

"Yes."

And you’d principally prefer that, but you realized it was too risky for the deal?

"Oh yes. Yes, and so we’ve got kind of a hybrid. We have a lot of resources being put in, we have metrics, but those metrics trigger a commission, that’s a good thing. But truth be told, I think everyone knows we’d like to have firm triggers all the way along. But then again, on the Democratic side, they would prefer that you don’t have a meaningful guest worker plan or that you have a quicker path to citizenship than we have.

"This is a bipartisan bill and with that you’re going to have elements that you don’t like."

What will be the hardest part of this agreement to sell or explain back home in Arizona?

"I think there is a segment of the electorate who just do not believe that anyone here illegally now should ever be able to access a path to citizenship. I don’t think that’s a majority position, but it is a deeply held position by a lot of people."

And how do you talk to them about that?

"We say that it is a long and arduous path, but it is possible. I’ve always felt, even when we weren’t under the gun like this with the Gang of Eight bill, the legislation I introduced before had a path to citizenship.

"I’ve always felt that if you’re going to be here for 20 or 30 years in a legal status, why not have the possibility and the opportunity and the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship? That’s what sets us apart from other countries, it’s a good thing. For me, that’s the way I put it.

"I think we ought to value citizenship, we ought to value the rule of law. There’s a way to do both. We think we’ve done it in this bill. The vast majority of Americans out there believe that citizenship ought to be earned and valued and that’s what we’ve tried to respect in this bill."

So you’re hearing these concerns about the pathway to citizenship on one end. You heard at various points late last month and this month from the other end of the political spectrum upset with your votes on guns. How tricky is it to be Jeff Flake these days? You have five and a half years before you have to worry about reelection, but clearly you’ve upset parts of your state.

"Yeah, in the end -- well, let me back up. In the House early on, I went after earmarks and took some positions that were vehemently disagreed with. I had the Arizona Republic writing editorials and cartoons lampooning my position and it was not popular. I had a primary race and had four of the five mayors in my district coming out against me. So being lonely isn’t a foreign concept.

"But in the end, if you stick it out and keep explaining -- particularly when you don’t have to run every two years -- then people understand. And when they understand the principles that you work on, they give you the benefit of the doubt sometimes if they don’t understand the specific vote."

You touched on something as you began answering about being in a tricky political position: The transition from House to Senate, in that you represented a smaller area and now represent the whole state. Have you talked to anyone else who’s done the House to Senate transition about the transition?

"Well, Sen. Kyl, was in the House, and Sen. McCain was as well. It’s the old psalm that someone once said, that in the House to get attention you have to strip naked and walk down the street, but in the Senate you just sneeze and three media trucks show up. There’s a lot to be said about that.

"Obviously, with this position comes a lot more leverage. You can put holds, with unanimous consent required to do just about anything, even in the minority you have a lot of leverage. And with that, there’s a lot of scrutiny on anything you say and any nuanced position you take in terms of any legislation can be turned and twisted or exploited by others if they want to and it just comes with the territory.

"I’m not complaining about it. I asked for this job and I’m enjoying it."

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