Mario Diaz-Balart on immigration: ‘We need to get the support of enough people or we’re dead’

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). (washingtonpost.com)

No matter where things stand on immigration reform in Congress -- and on Thursday House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) definitely delivered a setback -- Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is still eagerly seeking a deal that can somehow please enough Republicans and Democrats to advance. And that upsets many Democrats and Republicans.

He's been involved in bipartisan talks on the issue for years, most recently last year's bipartisan "Group of Eight" talks, which failed to agree on a proposal. He's one of the guys most skilled on the issue, so he gets plenty of flack from both sides. Here's a partial transcript of an interview conducted Tuesday afternoon before Boehner made his comments. Diaz-Balart frequently requested to speak off the record, but here's most of what he agreed to say publicly, edited for clarity and grammar:

Q: So, where do things stand right now?

“I’ve had a million doubts over the years. … I’ve been dealing with this issue even before 2009, so I’ve seen broken promises and remember that was when President Obama said that this was going to be one of his first priorities in his first 12 months. Everything else, as has been subsequently reported, we had a bill that was about 95 percent then and Democrats controlled everything, and it didn’t get done because they didn’t want to do it. So I’ve seen it all.

“However, I’ve been very optimistic this Congress that we have an opportunity to really fix a system that everybody recognizes is broken. The speaker’s been very clear that we’re not going to do a multihundred-page bill, that we’re not going to do things that people are going to understand, we’re not going to rush this process, and we’re going to see if we can get this policy right.”

Q: When House Republicans say they’re not going to agree to pass one big immigration bill -- you may do four to nine bills -- do you acknowledge that ultimately Congress might need to pass one big comprehensive bill to settle the issue?

“Not necessarily. You could split it up into a number of different bills. Look, I think everybody recognizes that, say, the STEM issue, it’s a no-brainer that we have to do it. It’s a no-brainer about the concept being broken, and we have to fix it. The Senate has it in its comprehensive bill. You could, we could pass a STEM bill, we could conference on the STEM issue, they could use their language to start the basis of it, but you could split it apart. You could conference six, seven, eight bills. But the speaker is clear we’re not going to conference on the Senate bill.

“And if we do separate bills, we do separate bills. I think, look, there are those in the Senate that want to use this as a political toll, but then there are those in the Senate who actually want to get something done. And they need to understand what the rules of the game are. Why does there have to be one 2,000-page bill? Why can’t you split up different aspects into small, easy to understand and digest and read bills? If they’re not willing to do that, we’ve got a problem. But the president said that he’s willing to do that, and I think the Senate would be, as well.”

Q: Which Republicans are you talking to about this issue?

“I can’t tell you who I’m negotiating with.”

Q: Well, are we correct when we report that people like Paul Ryan are deeply involved in the process?

“I’m not going to go there, I’m just not going to go there. I’ll tell you that there’s a group of folks here who really are working very hard, diligently, spending incredible amounts of time and effort to try to come up with a good policy. But who, I’m not going to go there.

“In order to move something in the House, you have to get the majority of the majority. You have to get the so-called ‘Hastert Rule.’ They have to agree to move ahead with it.”

Q: Do you agree with House GOP aides and other observers who talk about this idea that one day it seems like Republicans are making progress and the next day it seems as if there's no progress and more skepticism about a deal being reached? And that we'll continue to see this kind of public posturing until June or July because of the tricky way that the House GOP conference works?

“Yes, and we need to get the support of enough people or we’re dead.”

Q: In talking to Democrats involved in this issue, they say that you’re their lead Republican liaison on this issue. Is that true? 

“That’s been my role, and that’s because I’m involved in this issue since the Gang of 20 – I’m from Miami, I hate calling ourselves a gang – so that’s been my role. I think that bill [the House ‘Group of Eight’ immigration bill] was a very good bill … that legislation is done. I don’t mean to tease you, but that’s what that big binder is right there. I’ve got so many different versions, but it might be one of the 15 other versions of it. That legislation has been done. I like it, but we couldn’t get the support for it."

Q: Do you have any sense of whether negotiating over immigration is trickier than other areas of policy, like budget and appropriations bills? 

“I’m not a subcommittee chairman, but I was the chairman of appropriations in the state legislature. This has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever dealt with. First thing, the policy is very complicated; and then the politics is very difficult; and, thirdly, the emotional aspect is very strong. Add all those things together, and this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.

Q: What makes this so emotional?

“It’s the political part. People just jump all over you not caring what the policy is, just because. I get it all the time. Look, the fact is that I get demonstrations on the right and the left on the same day. I had demonstrations Christmas week in front of my house. The fact that you’ve got the industries out there – and I’m not talking about business groups, I’m talking about the pro- and anti-immigration interest groups. And they’re businesses, too. Some of them actually care about the issue, while others are just businesses. It’s fundraising. So they have all those aspects of it. This has been the most difficult issue that I’ve ever had to deal with.

“Policywise it’s also difficult. Let me give you an example: Think about the pathway to citizenship. I’ve been dealing with this for a million years, and they ask, 'Do you or do you not support it?' And I ask, 'What do you mean by that?'

“And they say, 'Uh, do you think people should be given citizenship?' And I say, 'Yes, but what do you mean by that?'

“Now, the Senate bill has a unique pathway to citizenship. It has been reported that the bipartisan bill had a unique pathway to citizenship. But I will tell you that when you talk to folks and you say, alright, let’s look at the merits of a unique, separate pathway to citizenship – and I think there are public policy merits to that – but what if I’m waiting in line in the Philippines two times a week and it’s hot, or I’m in Tegucigalpa and I’m waiting in line? Can I get into that unique line? And the answer is no. So if I broke into the law I can get into that line. But if I didn’t get in that line I can’t? How is that not a violation of the rule of law?

“And there people get stumped. So it’s a little more complicated.”

Q: So, why should there be a separate pathway to citizenship?

“Well, that’s theoretical. There are reports that the [Group of Eight] bipartisan bill had it. I’m not saying whether or not I am, but it’s been very clear that the House will not accept something that does not strictly adhere to the rule of law. And the question is, does something like this strictly adhere to the rule of law. And there’s a very strong argument that it doesn’t.

“That doesn’t mean that you want to deny citizenship to people. My point is, on things like this, you can’t put labels on these things. The fact that you don’t support this idea, based on because it could be a violation of the rule of law, that doesn’t mean that you don’t support citizenship, or that you want to deny people citizenship. It means you want to strictly adhere to the rule of law.”

Q: So, rule of law trumps anyone becoming a citizen.

“Yes… but that doesn’t mean that you’re evil or anti-immigrant or don’t support citizenship or [for] everyone to become a citizen or not. It’s more complicated, more nuanced and more complicated than that.”

Q: So, a “special pathway to citizenship” is some kind of special expressway for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. Do you think that your conference would say, so long as you pay back taxes, pick up some English proficiency and American civics, and are following the law right now, that you can jump in on the current pathway to citizenship?

“Let me explain what you said: I think if you have a process where somebody who has broken the law, if you have a process where they can earn a way to get right with the law and they’ve earned it, whatever that process may be, then I think the American people are willing to say, 'Okay, now if there are certain ways to do it, you can’t cut in front of other folks.' But if there are those lines, I think the American people understand that that’s the concept of our criminal justice system. Which is, I don’t care if you get stopped for speeding or commit a more serious crime, but you have to get right with the law. But once you get right with the law, you have to do whatever is required to get right with the law. And whatever you do has to be serious.

“But once you’ve done that, then I don’t think there’s not a lot of objection.”

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