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How A Miami Republican Almost Got Immigration Reform Passed

Emily Michot
Miami Herald staff

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) spent the whole year trying to convince fellow House Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform.  

By going to many Republicans one by one, Diaz-Balart says he had solidified the votes to pass immigration reform for the first time since Ronald Regan was president.

He had found a simple solution that gained GOP support: Apply current paths to citizenship to every immigrant already in the country – but putting those who entered illegally at the back of the line instead of the front.

“If you marry a current citizen, they can claim you, right?"  he says. "So there are a number of current pathways. They’re not perfect. They’re not ideal. But that’s what they do.”

The South Florida congressman says many in the Republican Party have been painted with an unfair brush on this issue. Republicans' concern centered on the fairness of forcing people to continue to wait for citizenship while those who illegally crossed the border got priority.

His plan was also to tweak and massage some of the current naturalization options, making it easier to become a citizen for those who have been working and raising their families here for decades. Diaz-Balart is close-lipped on the rest of the details he has ironed out on immigration.

But the plan blew up. Now immigration activists, lawmakers and President Obama have thrown in their respective towels.

The effort failed in part because of the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) in his state's primary. Diaz-Balart says Republicans feared voters would perceive Cantor's loss was due to his push on an immigration bill. But Republicans knew Cantor really lost because he was seen as a Washington insider back home.

Despite the setback on reform, Diaz-Balart’s schedule hasn’t stopped. He is trying to convince skeptical Republicans to send the president more than a billion dollars to deal with unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. 

To Vote Or Not To Vote?

One of Diaz-Balart's partners in the reform effort was Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). A leading House voice for an immigration overhaul, Gutierrez believes Diaz-Balart had a difficult job.

“I was hopeful that he would be able to achieve where I failed," Gutierrez says. "I failed to get the Democratic Caucus, when we were in the majority, to give us a vote on immigration reform. I failed in 2007, ‘08, ‘09, ‘10. I was hopeful that he would be able to achieve what I didn’t.”

Rep. Diaz-Balart succeeded, says Gutierrez, while House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) failed. “And because of [Diaz-Balart’s] work,” he adds, “if Boehner would give us a vote, we’d pass a bill reforming our immigration system. We’d pass one, and unfortunately [Diaz-Balart is] not going to get a vote. So it’s that leadership question.”

There might be a window to pass reform after the November elections. But Diaz-Balart says he fears Democrats may walk away because they want a campaign issue in 2016, as opposed to a policy issue this year.

But Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) says if Diaz-Balart truly cares about the issue he will join Democrats to sign a petition forcing a vote on immigration reform.

“He and the 30 others that are for it should sign a discharge position and get this done, ” Garcia says.

Rep. Diaz-Balart brushes that aside. He maintains he walked a tightrope in crafting a proposal that could win over both Democrats and the most important votes: conservatives.

“I mean,” he says, “I can’t go farther to the right.”