MERIDIAN, Idaho - Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador pledged Monday to keep working on immigration reform, despite having walked away last week from a bipartisan group of eight members working to craft a House bill.
“I promise you, this does not delay the process,” he told a dozen members of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights of Idaho, who stood chanting in the foyer of his office for nearly 40 minutes before Labrador emerged from a conference call. Labrador then talked with the group, answering questions in both Spanish and English, for the next 45 minutes, in a conversation that was sometimes friendly, but occasionally heated.
“Just this morning, John Boehner announced that he wants immigration reform done by the Fourth of July,” Labrador said. “My goal is to have immigration reform done by the end of this year.”
Labrador, a conservative Republican second-term congressman who’s fluent in Spanish and is of Puerto Rican heritage, has been seen as one of a handful of potential key players on immigration reform in Congress, and was part of an equally split group of four Republicans and four Democrats working on House legislation.
But he said Monday his differences with the bipartisan “Group of Eight” went beyond the health care issue he pointed to last week – that he believes immigrants should cover their own catastrophic health care costs, rather than qualify for coverage under the national health care reform law.
Labrador said he’d earlier “agreed to disagree” with the group over guest worker programs, and the health care issue was the second big disagreement. At that point, he said he saw what had been overall agreement on a broad array of issues disintegrating as the lawmakers got into the details of crafting a bill. But most importantly, he said he became convinced the bill the bipartisan group was working toward wouldn’t end up passing the GOP-dominated House.
“My goal is to make sure that something good passes,” he declared. “I decided that there’s a better way.”
Labrador said he’s working with members of the House Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, and he expects an array of reform bills to come to that panel, including the Group of Eight’s bill. “What we’re probably going to do is a more step by step approach,” he said. But once the House has passed something, it’ll have to go to conference with the Senate. “In the conference, it’s going to have to be a bipartisan solution, whatever happens,” he said. “When it gets to the conference, it will be comprehensive.”
The reform activists, who were mostly Hispanic, said they were disappointed Labrador walked away from the bipartisan talks, and said they thought it could set back the movement toward immigration reform.
Fernando Mejia-Ledesma said, “We are deeply disappointed. … We want real leadership.”
Ruby Mendez, a 21-year-old intern organizer for the Idaho Community Action Network from Star, Idaho, said, “We have supported you when you were practicing law, and we have even voted for you so you can fix our immigration system.” She said, “As a Latina in Idaho, I’ve seen many of my family and friends be affected by a broken immigration system. To see the injustice, it’s been a tough task. … We represent here in Idaho 11 percent – we’re a growing community.”
The immigration reform group stresses keeping families together; Labrador said he shares that goal. “This is the main reason that I have not walked away from immigration reform – we have to do the right thing for America,” he said. “We have a broken system, and I worked in the system for 15 years. I saw families broken up. … We can’t allow the immigration system to stay this way.”
Labrador, a former immigration attorney, campaigned in part on reforming the nation’s immigration system. “I will not abandon my efforts to modernize our broken immigration system by securing our borders and creating a workable guest worker program,” he said. “I remain hopeful that the House can pass a bill around these principles, and I will keep fighting to make it happen.”
Labrador said he doesn’t fully support the bill now being considered in the Senate, but might in the future depending on how it’s amended. “I’m doing everything I can,” he told the group.
After they left his office, Labrador said he’s gotten differing reactions from other groups since quitting the bipartisan reform talks last week. “Actually, most people are happy,” he said. “A lot of people in Idaho don’t want me to do any immigration reform.” But, he said, “I’m trying.”