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.