ROANOKE — A lot has changed in this hilly railroad town since the early 1990s, when Bob Goodlatte was the go-to guy if you were an immigrant who needed help in western Virginia.
Back then, before Goodlatte was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1992, he was the region’s only immigration lawyer. Mostly he secured visas for foreign workers at the General Electric plant in neighboring Salem.
He also helped some of their extended family members — parents, siblings and adult children — join them in the United States. Today, immigration opponents call that “chain migration,” and now Goodlatte wants to ban it. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he’s at the center of Washington’s immigration fight and the author of a bill embraced by many hard-liners that would cut legal immigration by 25 percent.
In Roanoke’s growing number of taquerias and Vietnamese nail salons, Goodlatte’s transformation — from the guy immigrants used to call to the one leading an effort to keep them out — is a cause for painful puzzlement.
“He knows what issues these people face. He used to be their lawyer,” said Eddie Seay, a local immigration activist here.
Few have more at stake in the debate than Jose Cazarez, a 26-year-old legal assistant who works, as Goodlatte did, in an immigration law firm in Roanoke’s petite downtown, two blocks from the congressman’s district office.
Cazarez and his older brother Francis were brought to the United States illegally from Mexico when he was 3 months old. They grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where Cazarez was a long-suffering Chiefs fan, unaware he was undocumented until he needed identification to take driver’s ed.
In 2013, Cazarez, who is gay, moved to Roanoke to marry a man born and raised in southwest Virginia. He signed up for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects immigrants brought here as children from deportation.
In the fall of that same year, his brother was stopped for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. With three previous traffic misdemeanors, Francis wasn’t eligible for DACA. He was deported to Mexico with bad Spanish and few contacts. What happened to him three years later still haunts his family.
Cazarez knows that life in the only country he’s ever known could hang on the actions of the congressman who parks in the same garage he does.
“People say he used to be on our side,” Cazarez said. “Does he care about us now?”
Earlier this month on Capitol Hill, Goodlatte explained in an interview his journey from immigration lawyer to champion of immigration hard-liners.
Asked the question posed by Cazarez about immigrants, he said, “Tell them I’m still with them.”
Goodlatte didn’t set out to be an immigration lawyer, he said. But he had worked for Rep. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.) in the mid-1970s after law school and was the staffer tasked with piloting constituents through the arcane immigration system.
When he launched his practice in Roanoke in the late 1970s, that experience stood out. An India-born engineer named Tony Bhatia called him, hoping Goodlatte could get him a visa to work at the General Electric plant.
“Bob was very good, very professional,” said Bhatia, 56, who became a U.S. citizen in 1996 and now lives near Atlanta. “I had all my friends contact him from India.”
The GE plant sent him more cases, as did other companies. He joined the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is active now as a pro-immigration advocacy group. Immigration cases soon made up a majority of his practice.
“I was really the only immigration lawyer [in the area],” Goodlatte said. “By the time I left to run for Congress, I was representing clients in about nine states.”
When someone had overstayed a visa or jumped the border, Goodlatte referred them to lawyers closer to the immigration court in Arlington, he said. But he did take on the more common cases of legal residents and citizens who wanted to bring relatives into the United States, mostly spouses but sometimes extended family.
After Goodlatte was elected in 1992, he sold his practice to Ken Lasky, who still represents immigrants. Lasky said he’s mystified about Goodlatte’s current position on immigration.
“I’ve been surprised at how restrictionist he’s become,” Lasky said. “He wants to limit a lot of what he used to do.”
Goodlatte, who has announced he will retire at the end of the year, rejects the idea that he was once pro-immigration and now he’s against it.
“I was a lawyer,” he said. “I was representing my constituents and helping them accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.”
Goodlatte’s legislation, which has been praised by President Trump, would boost the number of visas for skilled workers and some agricultural laborers by eliminating the ability of new citizens to sponsor extended family members. A summary on his website declares that the bill “Ends Chain Migration.”
He laments the rhetoric.
“I’m offended by the term ‘chain migration,’ but it’s commonly used, so I use it,” he said.
The congressman denies he has flip-flopped on his former clients. But he sees no public support for increasing immigration, and he wants more slots to go to applicants who bring skills, not just a family connection.
“We need to move in the direction of shifting those green cards away from extended family, where the basis for your coming to the United States is your relationship to somebody, not what you bring that’s needed in our economy,” he said.
Other provisions that have attracted hard-liners include Goodlatte’s call to eliminate the diversity visa lottery, which awards up to 50,000 green cards a year to random applicants from underrepresented countries, and his requirement that companies vet all future hires through the national E-Verify database. He would also crack down on “sanctuary cities” and add billions of dollars in funding to border enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rather than a path to citizenship, Goodlatte would give DACA recipients temporary residency, renewable every three years. In recent days, hoping to attract the support of moderates, he’s signaled an openness to extending the time between renewals. Recipients’ parents would get no protections.
Goodlatte maintains that his proposals are more generous than many Republicans want and are more open than those allowed in other Western democracies.
“They are not restrictionist views at all,” he said.
Immigration activists said they staked out Goodlatte’s office for weeks last year, even though he never came out to talk to them.
“We want him to know we are here,” said one of the protesters, Elizabeth Castaneda, a Roanoke translator whose DACA-recipient daughter is a recent college graduate. “He’s our representative. I can’t vote for him, but I live here. I pay taxes.”
According to U.S. Census data, the proportion of Roanoke residents born outside the United States has more than quadrupled since Goodlatte took office in the early 1990s. One of Roanoke’s state delegates, Sam Rasoul (D), is the son of Palestinian immigrants and the only Muslim in the Virginia legislature. There are at least three immigration lawyers in the city now, and they are busy.
At his legal-assistance office in a modern downtown loft, Cazarez sat down with client after client, many of them, like him, DACA recipients navigating the limbo that started when Trump canceled the program in 2017.
Between appointments, Cazarez talked about coming to Virginia to be with Bradley Gusler, a payroll company supervisor he met at a Fleetwood Mac concert. Cazarez talked about the sense of stability that came with DACA, as well as the day that showed how fleeting stability could be.
After being deported in 2013, his brother Francis, then 23, settled near Colima, a high-crime area on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The locals laughed when he asked, in broken Spanish, for ketchup instead of salsa. For work, he picked lemons. On his few calls home, he complained about robberies around his neighborhood.
“He didn’t have a proper phone, and when he could afford a calling card, he usually called my mom,” Cazarez said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t in close touch.”
They were close growing up, though. Cazarez was the junior wing man when their mother wouldn’t let Francis go to high school events without his little brother.
“He would use me as his sensitive side,” he said, telling girls, “ ‘You know my brother is gay right?’ ” Cazarez had been saving money for a possible visit to Mexico to see the brother he called “Franci.”
But one August day in 2016, as Cazarez and Gusler were preparing to close on their first house in Roanoke, his mother called from Missouri. “They killed my son,” she said dully.
Once he believed her, he collapsed on the floor.
Francis had been murdered. His body was found in front of a school. There were no arrests; there have been no answers.
Cazarez, who couldn’t go help his brother either before or after he was killed, left his job as a bank teller and applied for one with Jennifer Grace Dean, a local immigration attorney.
“My passion is not selling someone a home-equity loan,” he said. “My passion is helping make sure that no family goes through what we went through.”
Goodlatte expressed sympathy for Cazarez’s family, calling their loss “heart-rending.” Murder, he said, is a tragedy on either side of the border. He cited killings in his own district by the international street gang MS-13.
“I think that the better thing to do is to help other countries solve their problems where they are than to think we can open our borders to let as many people as possible come into our country,” he said.
Still, he had some advice for Cazarez, noting that under his bill the young man would be eligible to pursue residency and, eventually, citizenship as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
It was just what an immigration lawyer would say.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.