Puerto Rico-Born Labrador Top Republican on Immigration

Raul Labrador, a Tea Party favorite, has emerged as House Republicans’ go-to negotiator on immigration. He is unusually prepared for the task: The Puerto Rico-born Mormon convert is a lawyer fluent in Spanish who has represented undocumented residents fighting deportation.

Labrador, first elected to Congress from Idaho in 2010 with anti-tax Tea Party support, is playing a significant role in his party’s move to revise immigration law and re-engage with Hispanic voters who have turned Democratic. Still, he has been a rebel within the Republican Party. This year, he stood silent on John Boehner’s re-election as House speaker.

Without a rewrite of U.S. immigration policy, “it makes it much more difficult” for Republicans “to have a conversation with Latinos if Latinos feel we are not listening to them on the issue,” Labrador said in a telephone interview yesterday. “If we do the right policy, we will have an opportunity to reach out” on other issues, he said.

Labrador is among a bipartisan group of eight House members negotiating a plan addressing the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., border security and allowing other people to enter the country legally. The House is moving more slowly than the Senate, where a bipartisan group plans to introduce a proposal as soon as next week, though Labrador and fellow Republicans negotiating a plan voice optimism that a final agreement can be reached this year.

House Leverage

After opposing House leaders on budgetary issues, Labrador’s standing with the anti-government-spending faction in his party offers the speaker needed leverage in the House.

“He was taking on the speaker, and now he’s playing a key role on one of the biggest issues” in Congress, said James B. Weatherby, a former Boise State University political scientist.

Labrador, 45, comes from a state with “conservative credentials,” he said, “and can speak on immigration with some credibility.”

As “the Tea Party voice” in the House debate, Labrador is well-positioned to help Republican leaders by “providing the right flank,” said Kevin Appleby, director of refugee and migration services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“If he gives the green light, that goes a long way” toward bringing along reluctant House Republicans, Appleby said.

Courting Hispanics

Boehner has said he wants a bipartisan compromise on immigration to emerge in the House, which Republicans control 232-200 with three vacancies. Party leaders say they must do more to court Hispanic voters after President Barack Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic votes cast in November.

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, Cuban-American and member of the House negotiating group, said yesterday that lawmakers will propose steps to legal status for undocumented immigrants. He spoke in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook for “Capitol Gains.”

“You bring them out of the shadows,” Diaz-Balart said, “so that they can become an integral part of the economy.” Still, he cautioned, the House group won’t offer “amnesty” for those unlawfully in the U.S.

Labrador will “be very, very important” to the House talks on an immigration rewrite, said a top Democratic House negotiator, Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez. Labrador takes “a very balanced approach” that stresses enforcement and border security as main components, Gutierrez said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month.

Latino Mormon

Labrador’s “non-stereotypical characteristics” make him influential in the debate, Gutierrez said. “Yes, Latino, but from Idaho; yes, Latino, but Mormon.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Labrador was raised by a single mother who moved with him to Las Vegas when he was 13. Concerned that her son might fall in with the wrong crowd, she enrolled him in a Mormon youth group. He later joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

He attended Brigham Young University in Utah and earned a law degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. He moved to Idaho, his wife’s home state, and opened an immigration law practice. His work included representing undocumented farmworkers in deportation proceedings.

His clients included “permanent residents who made mistakes and were facing removal,” he said, as well as high-tech companies seeking to hire workers from overseas.

As a state legislator, Labrador opposed Republican Idaho Governor Butch Otter’s 2009 plan to raise the state’s 25-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to 32 cents to pay for road and bridge construction. That stand helped propel Labrador to a surprise victory in the 2010 Republican primary for his U.S. House seat. In the general election, he survived accusations that he aided illegal immigration by representing undocumented residents in his law practice.

Opposed Party

As a congressman, Labrador voted against budget deals that Boehner negotiated with Democrats to keep the government operating and to avoid a default on the government’s debt. Labrador said the agreements didn’t cut spending enough.

In January, he opposed Congress’s agreement to postpone automatic federal spending cuts and keep most of the tax cuts approved during President George W. Bush’s first term.

The two-term congressman says his job is “to represent my constituents” and “keep the promises I made in the campaign” rather than curry favor with the Washington political establishment. Voters want “honest leaders willing to buck the system even if it means going against their own party.”

Boehner Re-Election

He abstained from voting in Boehner’s re-election.

“I decided to speak with my silence,” Labrador told the Inlander, a Spokane, Washington, weekly newspaper that circulates in his congressional district. “There was nobody at that moment I thought would be a good speaker.”

Labrador received one vote for House speaker, from Michigan Republican Justin Amash, another party rebel who was removed from the Budget Committee for opposing House leadership.

Labrador doesn’t dispute published reports that he was part of a group of Republicans who thought about upending Boehner’s re-election as speaker.

“I want to get past that moment” because “Boehner and I have a good relationship,” he said.

In the immigration talks, one of the biggest sticking points is whether to give undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a chance to eventually gain citizenship.

Along with tougher enforcement and tighter border security, Labrador favors legalizing undocumented immigrants without giving them a “special” path to citizenship.

Same Process

“Anyone who wants to become a legal permanent resident or a naturalized citizen” is “welcome to apply,” he said in a March 3 speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. “The key is they must follow the same process that would be available” to other immigrants.

House Republicans such as Lamar Smith of Texas say giving undocumented immigrants “amnesty” would create an incentive for more to enter the U.S. illegally, and would give them an unfair advantage over 2 million would-be immigrants awaiting visas in their home countries.

Labrador’s role is to ensure that Republicans “stand by a principle that those who have broken the law don’t get a special advantage,” Appleby said.

“The key to immigration reform is not to fix the status of 11 million” undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Labrador said. “The key to immigration reform is preventing another wave of illegals from coming.”

Guest Workers

Labrador said the lack of a robust guest-worker program is “the reason we have so many illegal immigrants.” For Republicans, their status “is not as important as how we reform the immigration system.” Without a workable guest-worker program, few Republicans will vote for immigration overhaul, he said.

With an immigration law practice that included farmworkers facing deportation, Labrador and other lawyers met regularly with immigration officials and staff for Idaho’s members of Congress to discuss problems in the system, said Lisa Barini-Garcia, an immigration lawyer in Twin Falls.

He was “probably more in line with our thinking as practitioners that immigration needed to be overhauled,” she said in an interview.

Official Language

Barini-Garcia, a child of bilingual parents, said she found it “troubling” that Labrador supported legislation to make English the official language of Idaho. Labrador told her that state lawmakers were emphasizing that bilingual students “needed to have English as a second language,” she said.

She also said Labrador doesn’t “give some credit to the huge population of immigrants who are here undocumented but contributing to our economy” by “doing jobs that legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens don’t want.”

Labrador balances his role as rebel and potential dealmaker by being “up front and honest with everybody,” said state Representative Lawerence Denney, a former speaker of Idaho’s House of Representatives.

“You don’t have to wonder where he is” on a particular issue, Denney said in a telephone interview. “If he is going to be against you he tells you he’s against you. That makes him someone that you can trust, whether he is with you or whether he is not.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.