Politics

05.11.13

Immigration’s Odd Couple: Two Puerto Rican Congressmen Forge a Deal

Behind the scenes, Raúl Labrador and Luis Gutierrez are using their bond over heritage to get a comprehensive overhaul through the House—all with Paul Ryan’s blessing.

They are a congressional odd couple, dos amigos with a powerful third working in the wings. Both are Puerto Rican. One represents an urban district in Chicago, the other the Panhandle of Idaho.

One is a liberal Democrat. The other a conservative Republican.  Both serve on the Judiciary Committee. They schmooze over neighboring lockers in the House gym, sleep on almost identical leather sofa beds in their respective offices, and describe each other with the same word—“awesome.” And they might just be the best hope of getting comprehensive immigration reform through the House.

Meet Congressman Raúl Labrador: a low-key, second-term, Tea Party-backed 45-year-old from rural Eagle outside Boise. And Rep. Luis Gutierrez, aged 60, is an exuberant and savvy 20-year Hill vet: a Chicago insider and the first Hispanic elected to the House from the Midwest.

Their influential ally is Wisconsin congressman and 2012 vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a longtime advocate of overhauling immigration policies.

It was Ryan, who, during morning workouts in the gym, suggested that the two team up. Ryan also recently traveled to Chicago with Gutierrez to hold a joint press conference pushing bipartisan consensus on the thorny issue. His message: immigration reform is vital to U.S. security and the economy and has a green light in the House of Representatives.

“Of all the issues we are facing, immigration is the one I feel the most secure about,” says Ryan in a phone conversation from Wisconsin. “Everybody knows the system is broken and needs to be fixed. It’s clear to me that Luis and Raul have done a lot of work together. They are the pivotal guys, the key players and are down to the finer details of legislation.”

For more than a year, this unlikely pair has defied the poisonous political atmosphere, negotiating under the radar with six other members from both sides of the aisle.

Though the Senate’s Gang of Eight recently produced their own bill, the behind-the-scenes House negotiators—who’ve dubbed themselves “the Group of Eight”—are still struggling with content. They include: Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), John Yarmuth, (D-KY), Sam Johnson (R-TX), John Carter (R-TX), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL.)

Ryan serves as their consigliere. He does not attend meetings, but remains up-to-date on all discussions, is in constant contact, and most importantly, out front trying to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to support the upcoming legislation.

“Republicans like Paul Ryan who are influential with broad sectors of the GOP are stepping up in the House to say this is good policy and good politics, which makes me very optimistic we will craft a legal immigration system that matches our 21st-century society,” says Gutierrez

Labrador says, "it is extremely helpful to have someone like Mr. Ryan on our side as he is not just concerned about getting immigration policy right, but also ensuring that reforms happen in a fiscally responsible manner.

According to Gutierrez, the clique meets most evenings at 5 for two to four hours to hash out their differences over pizza, KFC, or spicy Salvadoran chicken.

And though each one knows they are not going to get everything they want, no one ever walks out. There are periodic time-outs after clashes and disagreements, but so far no one has ever said, “If you don’t agree to this, then we don’t have a bill.”

For Labrador these sessions are “fun and tortuous. Some days are better than others. Everybody is very civil. There are strong disagreements between the far right and the far left. I’m on the far, far right.”

Since the 2012 election, many in the GOP have grasped the necessity for compromise and the search for common ground seems to be on track. Ideologically polar opposites, Labrador and Gutierrez say they are committed to making a deal.

A fiscal conservative, Mormon, and immigration lawyer, Labrador emigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico at age 13, when his mother found a job at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Gradually, the two discovered they agreed on several things and began to trust each other. Says Gutierrez. “He knows I am an honest broker and I believe he is, too.”

To keep him out of trouble after school and on weekends, she sent him a nearby Mormon church. He felt immediately at home and converted from Catholicism. “It was a good place to be,” he says.

After law school, he settled in Idaho and during his 15 years as an immigration attorney represented an assortment of clients, many of them lacking documents and facing deportation.

He has firsthand knowledge of the pitfalls, and the heartbreak involved in the complex system. “It was good to help someone who thought they were lost and there was no way out,” he says. “As a lawyer, you know the possibilities of the law and you heard some pretty sad stories.”

During his time in the state legislature, fiscal responsibility, not immigration, was his primary concern. “I’m a Republican because I believe in fiscal and personal responsibility—low taxes, less government, all the conservative issues. My mother was a Democrat, so I have respect for all Democrats,” he adds.

Now his No. 1 priority is to establish an immigration policy with a visa system that actually works, along with strict enforcement against employers who hire illegal workers.

“We have to fix the future flow [of undocumented workers],” he says. “If we just give status to 11 million and don’t fix that issue, then 20 years from now we are going to be sitting here discussing the exact same problems. That cannot happen.”

Luis Gutierrez is a former cab driver, social worker, and city council member—and a longtime proponent of repairing immigration and has been working in the trenches since his election to Congress two decades ago.

For many, he has evolved into the “Champion of Immigration Reform.” His constituents refer to the 60-year-old as “El Gallito”—the little fighting rooster—because of his feisty manner and emotional rhetoric.

He says his aim in crafting this legislation is to halt deportations.  “This is critical for me. There are 11 million undocumented workers in this country—1,200 deportations every day, and they will not stop. That’s why there is such a sense of urgency. I work on this every day because there are hundreds of children left without a parent each day. I want the fear of deportation to stop.”

Born and raised to Puerto Rican parents in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Gutierrez endured his own sense of fear and loss when, after his freshman year in high school, his parents retired and moved the family to a small mountain barrio in Puerto Rico. It was culture shock for the street-wise kid who knew no Spanish, and who was called “gringo” and treated with suspicion.

To identify with his roots, he got involved in with the Puerto Rican Independence Party at 16 and eventually married and moved back to the Windy City, working for the town’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

His first day on the job was spent being barraged by constituents trying to cope with immigration problems—and he has fought for their rights ever since.

Despite their differences, he connected with Labrador because of their Puerto Rican heritage. “There aren’t many of us around here,” he says, and Labrador’s willingness to collaborate in what Gutierrez calls “the small things, the problems on the margins.”

Gradually, the two discovered they agreed on several things and began to trust each other. “That was critical,” says Gutierrez. “He knows I am an honest broker and I believe he is, too. I can’t believe he is doing this to gain popularity. His district is not immigration-built like mine.” (Labrador’s Hispanic population is only 10 percent.)

Rushing down the corridor to receive an award, Gutierrez outlines the contents of the House bill, part of which will contain ramped up security both internally and on the borders.

“There will be employment verification for everyone. I will do this real quick. It will include a system where we can keep track of people that come to visit us. It will have a legalization component and will have a method for you to come legally to the U.S. to work.”

For the 11 million undocumented, “there will a legalization system that allows you to come out of the shadows and register with the government. Pay a fee—a penalty—for that. So you don’t have to go home and come back,” he explains.

For both men, the devil is in the details and Labrador says they are close to an agreement, but still far apart on many issues. “It’s always at the end of negotiations where there can be a problem,” he warns.

No one will divulge specifics, but the sticking points appear to be the type of penalties imposed on employers who continue to hire undocumented workers, and the particulars of the pathway to citizenship for those already in this country.

Gutierrez maintains they can bridge the gap and complete a bill by mid- to late May. Until they finally resolve their differences, they will keep on meeting, talking, and consulting with Paul Ryan.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and feel good about this,” Ryan told The Daily Beast. “I see the political planets aligning in a way that leads me to believe we will get this done. It may take the bulk of summer, but we’re shooting to have a bill on the president’s desk sometime in August.”