Name to know: Idaho's Labrador is House GOP's go-to man on immigration reform

James Rowley / Bloomberg News /

Published Apr 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — Raul Labrador, a tea party favorite, has emerged as House Republicans’ go-to negotiator on immigration. He is unusually prepared for the task: The Puerto Rico-born Mormon convert is a lawyer fluent in Spanish who has represented undocumented residents fighting deportation.

Labrador, first elected to Congress from Idaho in 2010 with anti-tax tea party support, is playing a significant role in his party’s move to revise immigration law and re-engage with Hispanic voters who have turned Democratic. Still, he has been a rebel within the Republican Party. This year, he stood silent on John Boehner’s re-election as House speaker.

Without a rewrite of U.S. immigration policy, “it makes it much more difficult” for Republicans “to have a conversation with Latinos if Latinos feel we are not listening to them on the issue,” Labrador said in a telephone interview. “If we do the right policy, we will have an opportunity to reach out” on other issues, he said.

Labrador is among a bipartisan group of eight House members negotiating a plan addressing the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., border security and allowing other people to enter the country legally. The House is moving more slowly than the Senate, where a bipartisan group plans to introduce a proposal as soon as this week, though Labrador and fellow Republicans negotiating a plan voice optimism that a final agreement can be reached this year.

After opposing House leaders on budgetary issues, Labrador’s standing with the anti-government-spending faction in his party offers the speaker needed leverage in the House.

“He was taking on the speaker, and now he’s playing a key role on one of the biggest issues” in Congress, said James Weatherby, a former Boise State University political scientist.

Labrador, 45, comes from a state with “conservative credentials,” he said, “and can speak on immigration with some credibility.”

Labrador will “be very, very important” to the House talks on an immigration rewrite, said a top Democratic House negotiator, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. Labrador takes “a very balanced approach” that stresses enforcement and border security as main components, Gutierrez said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month.

Labrador’s “non-stereotypical characteristics” make him influential in the debate, Gutierrez said. “Yes, Latino, but from Idaho; yes, Latino, but Mormon.”