Raul Labrador is the only Puerto Rican, Mormon, tea-party immigration lawyer in Congress. That seems to cast him as a perfect candidate to work between the GOPs resistance to an immigration overhaul and the sense among some Democrats that the November election won them a free hand on the issue.
Labrador spent his first two years in Congress earning and burnishing a reputation as not just a no but a hell, no vote on just about every spending and fiscal bill that has come across his desk. But on immigration, he is seeking a different role.
Labrador has been conducting quiet talks with Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the Houses leading liberal immigration advocates. Recently, he requested a meeting with President Barack Obama, the nemesis to many in his party and his congressional class, to discuss working together.
And hes expressed a willingness to act as an evangelist for reform, offering to travel the country to conservative districts to explain why fixing a broken system does not mean offering amnesty.
Because Ive proven myself to be a conservative, people are willing to listen to what I have to say on this issue, he said last week in Boise.
The position could cast Labrador as something of the Houses version of Marco Rubio, the conservative Florida senator who last week signed on to a bipartisan framework for immigration change and has been working relentlessly to sell it.
Labrador has carefully positioned himself a little to the right of Rubio. He has offered pointed criticisms of the Senate plan his Florida colleague has been working so feverishly to promote a sign of the treacherous minefield immigration legislation will face this year in the GOP-held House.
Skepticism about the effort runs deep among Republicans and is likely to be on display as the House Judiciary Committee begins what its chairman has promised will be a long series of hearings on the issue.
The hearings will be Labradors first chance to test his new role. Despite tangling with House leaders in recent months, he was named to the key panel in December, a sign the leaders plan to lean on him.
Labrador, whose first language was Spanish, has been pushing changes to the law since his first campaign. He said his own election challenges the partys conventional wisdom about what its voters want.
I dont think he read the party right, Labrador said of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who veered to the right on the issue and advocated encouraging undocumented immigrants to self-deport.
He could have been a leader, Labrador continued. Its one of the stumbling blocks that I see for some Republicans. Theyre moderate on every other issue, and they think this is the one issue where they have to become conservatives.
I feel the reverse.
Labrador argues that deporting an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants would bankrupt the country and sap industries that rely on their labor. Instead, he favors allowing those without documents to seek a nonimmigrant visa part of a new, robust guest-worker program. It would allow them to step forward and gain legal status after paying a fine, without fear of deportation.
But, he says, normalized residents should be able to seek only a green card, which offers permanent residency and eventually citizenship, if they qualify under existing, already backlogged channels.
He stresses that he cannot support legislation that provides a new path to citizenship, a goal he sees as more important to Democratic activists seeking new Hispanic votes than immigrants themselves.
He has been critical of the Senate blueprint for endorsing eventual citizenship, an assessment that has made it easier for other Republicans to voice opposition as well
Labrador has been in touch with six House members three Democrats and three Republicans and two House aides confirmed that they have been working toward the introduction of a bipartisan immigration bill.
The group aims to complete its work shortly before or after President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address next week, as a parallel effort to the Senate group that includes Rubio.
What exactly Labrador and the other lawmakers are working on is not known.