BOISE, IDAHO — Rep. 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 hard-line GOP 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 on Capitol Hill earning and burnishing a reputation as not just a “no” but a “hell no” vote on nearly every spending and fiscal bill that came across his desk.
But on immigration, he is seeking a different role.
Elected to the House in the tea party wave of 2010, Labrador has been conducting quiet talks with Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of the House’s leading liberal immigration advocates. Recently, he requested a meeting with President Obama, the nemesis of 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 the House’s version of Marco Rubio (R), the conservative Florida senator who last week signed on to a bipartisan framework for immigration change and has been working relentlessly to sell it on right-wing TV and radio programs.
But already, there is pressure back home on Labrador, even as he has carefully positioned himself a little to the right of Rubio.
He has offered pointed criticism of the Senate plan — a sign of the treacherous minefield that immigration legislation will face this year in the GOP-held House. Skepticism about the effort was on display Tuesday as the House Judiciary Committee, which includes Labrador, held its first hearing on the issue.
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 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 the 11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living here 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 be able to seek a green card, which offers permanent residency and is a prerequisite for eventual citizenship, only if they qualify under existing, already backlogged channels.
He stresses that he cannot support legislation that would provide a new path to citizenship, a goal he says is more important to Democratic activists seeking Hispanic votes than to 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 that a new system must include a clear path to citizenship for those who are in the United States without documents.
But Labrador’s middle-ground approach has 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 on an afternoon talk-show here.
“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 in the country illegally — but skeptical looks when he also 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 who want to come to the country legally and companies that need 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.”
Labrador has been in touch with six House members — three Democrats, including Gutierrez, and three Republicans. Two House aides confirmed that the group has 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 clear whether Labrador will sign on to the proposal; the legislators involved have pledged silence.
Most lawmakers expect real action to begin in the Senate, but Labrador’s presence could offer the group a major boost. His absence, on the other hand, could be a warning 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.
Gutierrez said he and Labrador speak weekly about the issue. But he stressed that the talks have been preliminary and that 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 Republican to start from the same place. “What I believe,” he said, “is that we have to keep the conversation going.”
Ironically, his Hispanic roots, which Labrador acknowledges have sometimes earned him distrust at home, do little to boost his credibility with immigrants, who know he was born a U.S. 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 with 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 considers that response 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.