When Rep. Raul Labrador spoke to a supportive crowd about immigration reform, his best applause line fit on a bumper sticker.
I dont believe in a pathway to citizenship, the Idaho Republican told a packed town meeting at Meridian City Hall Thursday.
But when he added that we have to do something about these 12 million people who are here, Labrador acknowledged heads shaking vigorously in disagreement.
Im seeing some of you saying, No, no, no, but the cost to our society to just kick 12 million people out is something that were not going to be able to stand.
Though just a third-year lawmaker, the Spanish-speaking Labrador is at the center of the conversation on reform, touted by former GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan and others for his expertise.
Having practiced immigration law for 15 years, he says the system is broken, denying employers the willing workers they need from the low end of the wage scale in agriculture, manual labor and hospitality to the highly paid engineers at Micron.
The thing cries out for a solution, said Sen. Jim Risch, another of Idahos four-man, all-GOP congressional delegation, who said business leaders nearly always raise the issue. It would do very, very good things for the American economy if you could get a system in place where people could come here to work.
WHY SO HARD?
Immigration reform was a top priority in George W. Bushs second term, but it failed because of differences over amnesty or a pathway to citizenship for those who entered illegally. President Obama said it would be a top priority in his first term, but only last week did he finally move to jumpstart legislation with a speech in Las Vegas, the city that drew Labrador to the mainland from Puerto Rico at age 13.
Six years later, the sticking point remains.
The reason it hasnt come up is the question of amnesty, said Sen. Mike Crapo. Until this Congress, there was very little budge on anybodys side.
The more important development last week, Idaho Republicans agree, was not Obamas speech to a sympathetic audience, but a framework released by four GOP and four Democratic senators, including John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
I think the Gang of Eight has significantly tightened down on the issue of amnesty, Crapo said. The question will come down to whether there is enough compromise in this middle ground of allowing them to have a pathway to citizenship or permanent residency as a result of illegal entry. The potential is there, but there will still be huge battles over that.
Crapo said hes spoken with five of the eight members of the group, most thoroughly Rubio. If I understand them right, were pretty close. My position is this: A person who has entered the country illegally should not gain a benefit towards either permanent residency or citizenship.
A HOUSE COUNTER
Labrador is reportedly among a secretive House group of four Republicans and four Democrats drafting a proposal, perhaps in time for Obamas Feb. 12 State of the Union Address.
Asked about his membership, Labrador laughed and said, I can neither confirm nor deny! But, he said, What happens in the House will probably have a lot to do with some of my input.
Despite Labradors refusal to vote for House Speaker John Boehner last month, he got the Judiciary Committee and subcommittee assignments where immigration will be handled.
Rep. Mike Simpson, who blasted Labrador for betraying Boehner, nevertheless defers to Labrador on immigration. Said Simpson spokeswoman, Nikki Watts:
Immigration reform is an important issue facing our nation, but it is too early to determine what will be involved in the legislation that will come before the House for Congressman Simpson to consider. He is anxious to see what Congressman Labrador and his other colleagues put together so he can evaluate it.
Labrador said he welcomes the Gang of Eight proposal and salutes rising-star Rubio because he has a megaphone that I dont have. The Senate plan calls for tougher border security, an employment verification system and a guest worker program for jobs that Americans wont fill.
IS IT A PATHWAY?
Still, Labrador said, the Senate plan does offer an unacceptable benefit to those who entered the country illegally: that magical pathway to citizenship, which requires payment of back taxes and English proficiency.
He points to a provision saying unlawful residents will only receive a green card after every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card...has received their green card. Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated Americas immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law.
While that might not sound like a benefit to a lay person, Labrador said thats exactly what it is because a green card legal residency includes the prospect of citizenship under current law. Youre here illegally and youre jumping through all these hoops, then the law says within five years they can become citizens, Labrador said. That is a pathway to citizenship.
Crapo said thats not his read, though he acknowledged the difficulty of evaluating a framework thats not in bill form. I understand them differently than the media seems to be reporting it. The way theyve described it to me is those who were here illegally would be entitled to be part of a guest worker program.
When details emerge, Risch said, thats where the issue will turn. With the exception of what you do with the ones that are here, there is really very little question that you could hammer out a solution.
Still, Risch said, history suggests impasse is the most likely outcome. What happened last time was the thing just died on the vine because of the single issue thats driving everyone apart.
Crapo and Labrador are more bullish, in part because Obamas 70 percent vote among Hispanics has prompted many Republicans to see a deal as politically necessary.
When you get down to the core issues, I think Republicans will see this as an opportunity to work with the Hispanic community to show how close we really are in principle, Crapo said. I think these principles are at the very, very center of the Republican caucus.
This is the year to do something, Labrador said. Im actually very optimistic.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics