House Judiciary Committee chairmanwell versed in the immigration debate

July 23, 2013

The young woman’s voice was thick with emotion as she told members of the House Judiciary Committee about the pain of growing up in a family with mixed immigration statuses. She was born here, while her younger sister was born in Colombia. Her father is here legally, but her mother was forced to leave years ago. She kept putting off her wedding, hoping that things would change.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) posed this question, leaning back in his chair: “Would your parents — and do you think other parents would — be supportive of legislation that would allow your sister and other young people brought here at an early age to get legal status and, ultimately, U.S. citizenship but that did not necessarily address their situation?”

Pamela Rivera, 26, told him that’s an “in­cred­ibly difficult question to answer.” Her parents always put their children’s needs before their own, but she wants her entire family treated the same. She would oppose such legislation.

“I certainly understand that you would not want them to have to make that decision,” Goodlatte said in a matter-of-fact way seeming to lack emotion. “But Congress must make that decision.”

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte is the designated gatekeeper for much of the immigration-related legislation coursing through Congress, giving him the opportunity to exert great influence over what could be the country’s most expansive reform in a generation.

He brings deep experience to the job, having worked for years as an immigration lawyer and helping people from more than 70 countries immigrate to the United States — legally. He has a rare, and more skeptical, view on the immigration debate roiling the nation.

Goodlatte doubts that the United States can fully implement a sweeping reform like the one passed in the Senate this summer. Instead, he takes on issues one by one.

“Good legislation comes through a deliberative process,” he said, “and not through what’s the latest thing blowing through in the wind.”

While other House members have tried to draft a comprehensive immigration plan, Goodlatte’s committee has quietly and efficiently approved four smaller bills, including a controversial one that would give state and local agencies the power to enforce immigration laws and create their own policies. His latest venture is crafting legislation that would provide legal status to those who were brought into the country illegally as children — which was the topic of a subcommittee hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Although Goodlatte has spent much of his career working on immigration issues, it was often not something he sought out.

Fresh out of Washington and Lee University’s law school in the late 1970s, Goodlatte got a job in his congressman’s district office and worked on immigration issues. Application after application, Goodlatte learned the intricacies of immigration law and its accompanying frustrations. When he opened his own law firm, immigration quickly and unexpectedly made up half of his business.

Whatever eventually happens in the House, it will undoubtedly have a different tone and texture from the Senate’s plan — and one molded by Goodlatte. Despite this high-profile perch and two decades in office, Goodlatte has an understated presence. Those who have long worked in Washington had trouble coming up with memorable stories about him.

“Bob Goodlatte is the quintessential studious yeoman, worker bee,” said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who has been friends with Goodlatte and his wife for at least 25 years. “He wants to study it. He wants to learn it. And then he wants to get it done. 

“It’s not about the flash. It’s about the substance,” Griffith said.

Goodlatte grew up in Massachusetts, attended a liberal arts college in Maine and moved to Virginia for law school. He quickly eased into the role of a Southern gentleman. He savors the details and nuances of complicated policy. And Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, credits Goodlatte for not always having his mind made up on issues and for hearing out differing ideas.

But in a place filled with big personalities, Goodlatte can come across as aloof, boring or uninterested.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — who has served on two committees with Goodlatte — likes to tell a story about a meeting the two had years ago, when Goodlatte was chairman of the Agriculture Committee. As King spoke passionately about a complicated issue, Goodlatte didn’t look up from his BlackBerry. King was frustrated and a bit offended.

“I got done talking. He lifted his head up. And he repeated back to me the things that he needed to know,” King said. “He had heard every word. . . . I thought: This guy is a multitasker like I’ve never dealt with before.”

Goodlatte represents Virginia’s 6th Congressional District — which runs along Interstate 81 from, roughly, Strasburg and Front Royal in the north to Roanoke in the south. It’s the same district where he worked just out of law school for Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R), who was in office from 1972 to 1983 and voted for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. Butler became Goodlatte’s mentor.

Goodlatte usually returns home each weekend, stopping along the way to visit towns in his district. A devoted Boston Red Sox fan, he frequently attends minor league games for the Sox’s farm team in Salem, a town that used to be in his district. Sometimes they let him throw the opening pitch.

“I can’t imagine another member of Congress who covers every nook and cranny of his district better,” said state Sen. Ralph K. Smith (R-Roanoke), who has been close friends with Goodlatte since the 1980s. “He’s Mr. Chairman and much sought after in this day and time on the national scene. On the local scene, he’s Bob.”

The Judiciary Committee handles issues related to the judicial system, Constitution and civil liberties, among other things. Lately that has included abortion, Internet sales taxes, voting rights, gun rights, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and national security surveillance programs.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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