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Diaz-Balart on immigration reform: ‘There’s pushback on everything’

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is one of the key players on immigration reform in the House. (Reuters)

Mario Diaz-Balart has represented southern Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2003. He has been a leader in the House Gang of Eight, which is working in parallel with the Senate Gang of Eight to develop a bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform.

We spoke on the phone Thursday afternoon about the future of the House Gang and of immigration reform generally. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) left the Gang of Eight over disagreements on health care. How would you like to see that resolved?

I'd like to go to what we had agreed to originally, which is that the folks that did this have to have private insurance. But the method is less important to me than the pretty clear expectation from the American people that these folks, the formerly undocumented people, are not a public charge, to local hospitals or local government. The best way to do that is what we agreed to, in a bipartisan way, before. We'll have to see where we move forward.

Looking at the Senate process, are you happy with how that's gone?

Remember the Senate and House bill are not the same, and there are distinct differences. I will not criticize the Senate bill, or my colleagues in the Senate, who I think have done a spectacular job. But the House bill is different. The House bill, I think people will recognize, is quite a bit different in many aspects.

So your question is a valid, good question, but we're dealing with different bills, so it's not comparable in many ways. Some of the objections to the Senate bill, we have resolved. By the way, there were corrections in my bill that the Senate doesn't have. But I can't go into details of the House bill yet. We're trying to firm up the details, to see if we have an agreement before everyone jumps on it.

Better to be jumped on together than separately.

[Laughs] Exactly.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has suggested he'd prefer smaller bills on specific topics, rather than one big comprehensive bill.

I'm an optimist, but I think it's been a positive thing, because what I've been hearing is a desire to fix what is an absolutely broken immigration system. I have been less concerned about the strategy of whether you split them up, whether you keep them whole or separate them. That to me is less of a concern than the realization that the immigration system is broken, and that there's a willingness to try to fix it.

I have nothing but praise for the effort of Chairman Goodlatte. I may disagree on specific parts of the bills, but I think it's very important that he's been very methodically trying to educate people on the system, and it's clear, to my eyes, that he wants to move forward on immigration reform. He looks forward to putting together a bipartisan immigration bill. I think we'll get a fair hearing from Chairman Goodlatte. That's all one can ask.

Generally, what's the mood in your caucus on a path to citizenship? I imagine that might be a tough sell with some members.

Dylan, look, there's clearly a realization by 95 percent of the caucus that the immigration system, as it currently stands, is unsustainable. It doesn't satisfy our national security needs, it's hurting our economy, and the fact that we have people here is the reality, and we have to deal with that reality. The vast majority of the Republican caucus has reached that realization.

There's a very small number of folks who don't want to do anything at this stage, right now, but it's a very small group of people. Our challenge is to demonstrate to Congress, both parties, that we have a proposal that will do a few things. That's what Republicans and, quite frankly, the people are demanding. They're demanding that any legislation helps the economy. They're demanding we don't make the same mistakes of the 1986 legislation, where 15-20 years down the road, we have another 10 million folks undocumented, who come here unlawfully or overstay their visa. We have to show them this is unlike the '86 bill, that it's enforceable, that we can show it's enforced and enforceable.

Number three is that we have to demonstrate that the millions of people here are not going to be a public charge. The American people are exceedingly generous, and they want to give the opportunity to earn legalization, but let's make sure they're not a public charge. Those are the basic elements that we have to demonstrate to our conference. That it's real, enforceable border security and enforcement, that it's going to help our economy, that it's going to determine who's going in and out, and that it's not going to be a public charge.

The American people are willing, and the vast majority of the Republican conference are willing, to allow the folks who are here and undocumented to earn their way toward legalization, and toward becoming part of the American fabric. It's up to us who are developing legislation to demonstrate basic elements that have to be part of any immigration reform legislation.

Again, I've been exceedingly well received. There are legitimate policy questions and considerations that I'm hoping, in our bill, we'll be able to answer and satisfy. It's important to note there are legitimate policy considerations here. It's very complicated. If it were simple, Democrats would have done it when they controlled everything. If it were easy, Bush would have done it. There are serious, serious policy considerations, and the fact that people may have differences does not mean they're evil, or that they do not like certain people, but that there are serious policy considerations that have to be resolved.

It's important to have a bipartisan House bill. I keep saying that it's important to have Democrats, too. It's not my choice. I wish the Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate as well as the House. But Democrats control the Senate and White House. It's not rocket science. It's going to require bipartisan support.

The House voted this week to overturn Obama's deferral of deportation for young undocumented immigrants who'd be eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act. Does that worry you in terms of the chances for your bill?

I think it's a separate issue. There is skepticism over whether the president is overreaching his authority. The federal government is overreaching, and I think that's exemplified by the tapping of journalists' phones en masse, or going after journalists as a "flight risk," or the IRS targeting folks for their beliefs. The IRS thing, that's something you expect to read in The Post or Wall Street Journal or ABC News as happening in Venezuela, but not the U.S.

There is, frankly, grave concern about the federal government being out of control. So I think that's a big part of that. I may be misreading that, but I feel a lot of concern in the House and the country that the government is, frankly, now dangerously out of control. So that's my read on that, but I may be totally wrong. There is, I think, great and grave concern over whether the federal government, now, is as aggressive or more aggressive than during the Nixon administration, when the IRS is targeting people for their beliefs, and whenever you hear a new fact coming out about it, it doesn't mesh with what the administration says.

So I think there's a lot of concern about that overreaching. That's what I'm feeling. Which is, frankly, legitimate.

If there's that feeling, that the federal government is out of control, doesn't that translate into concern that it can't be trusted with something as big as an immigration overhaul?

Yes, but I think, to be perfectly honest, that concern is maybe aggravated and highlighted recently, but remember after the 1986 legalization, it wasn't Obama that failed to enforce, it was Republicans and Democrats, both administrations. There's skepticism of whether the federal government will enforce, period, and rightly so. We've seen this movie before, which is why I think you'll find, if we file a House bill, it has to be enforceable, and verifiably so. Which is, again, some of the major differences you'll eventually be able to see with the House proposal that we've been working on.

I know you don't want to get too into details, but it seems like border-control targets that have to be attained to trigger legalization would play a role there.

That's crucial. Absolutely crucial. We had to make a decision: "Are we serious about enforcing the laws, or are we not?" If we're serious, then they must be enforced. We have ways to make sure that they are. That's going to be one of the differences you're going to see with the Senate bill: more enforceable mechanisms.

What is your thinking on guest workers? That was a major sticking point in 2006 and 2007, and it seems like there's a big divide in thinking on that topic between folks who think it's second-class citizenship and folks who think it's crucial.

There's a divide about that issue, and among Democrats. Here's where I'm at on that issue. If we're going to have a system where you can protect the borders, and not have continuous illegal immigration, you need legal immigration that works. You need border, and interior, security, but also legal immigration that works, because you have a magnet, which is economy, jobs. You need the three components, including a legal immigration system that works.

The arrangement between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce on guest workers is just not workable. It will not fulfill our economic needs, it will hurt our economy, and make it very difficult to stop illegal immigration. That's my point of view on that. What happened there, and I'm not critical, is that you have two special interests getting together and determining what's right, but the special interest I want to protect is the rule of law, having the strongest economy, and preventing future illegal immigration.

But this deal they cut has created a difficult political situation. For construction workers, in the entire country, there's a limit of 12,000 that can never go up. This year, not a problem. But when the economy picks up, Miami will fulfill that entire quota. Then what happens? By the way, if it doesn't, I'm happy, but if you look at history, if you look a few years back, it's pretty evident that those numbers don't work.

Unlike, for example, the agriculture issue, where those two groups [United Farm Workers and growing companies -- Dylan] got together, and I'm not crazy about that deal, but there's some reasonable expectation that it could work. This deal, it's not feasible, unfortunately. I wish it were, but it isn't, and I don't think anybody could think, in a boom, 12,000 construction workers in the country is going to fulfill our labor needs

And, remember, we have an aging population, except for immigrants. So the math doesn't really work, and that's my fear. My interest is to help the economy, protect rule of law, and make sure that we stop future illegal immigration. And guest workers are an essential part of that. You can't do any of those things without having a system that works for legal immigration.

I'm not critical about the groups, I'm grateful, I'm glad they did it, and I wish we remembered that these are special interest groups, protecting their interests, as they should, but I'm a little frustrated that we can't veer off of what special interests have come up with. It's great they did so, and we should look at this, but they're special interest groups. My interest is the rule of law, the economy, and stopping illegal immigration.

It seems like there's been a lot of pushback on the H1B provisions of the Senate bill. What's your thinking on that?

There's pushback on everything. Really, on everything. On every single aspect of it, there's pushback. This is the most controversial issue you could ever get involved in. There's going to be pushback on everything, and that's okay. I think what we have to do is try to come up with legislation based on basic principles, like protect the rule of law, help the economy, and our national security, and within that you have to have the components I told you about. And then see if you can put together a bill like that, that can receive bipartisan support.

We'll see if it's possible. We'll know soon enough and it was clearly possible two months ago. The pressure's from outside, particularly from Nancy Pelosi, who's jeopardizing everything, but I'm very optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, but optimistic.