Immigration is clearly a top priority for the Senate during the 113th Congress. Eight Democratic and Republican lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight are meeting to hammer out bipartisan immigration legislation, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is promising to give it a prompt hearing in his committee. That has meant long hours for the aides preparing for hearings and turning a set of guiding principles into actual legislative language.
Here are five key Senate staffers who will shape any immigration legislation:
Kerri Talbot, chief counsel, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Talbot’s knowledge of immigration law runs so deep that before she even joined Menendez’s staff four years ago, she helped staffers navigate the maze of amendments during the last big immigration fight (she worked for an NGO called the Rights Working Group then). Now, she’s Menendez’s staff representative in the Gang of Eight talks, and says that both the lawmakers and their aides have a good working relationship. Talbot got her start working on immigration when she taught English to Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants as a college student. She and her boss share a passion for family immigration. “He’s always been considered a champion of the immigrant community,” she said of Menendez. Even though the senator doesn’t sit on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration reform, Talbot will probably play a similar role helping the staff there handle the amendments. Her colleagues are grateful for her deep expertise on the issue, not to mention her ability to draft legislative text.
Cesar Conda, chief of staff, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Conda has one of the toughest jobs in town right now: He has to help Rubio negotiate an immigration bill with the rest of the Gang of Eight that will be palatable to Republicans and not damage his boss’s conservative credentials in the process. “That’s a tough circle to square, but I think Cesar is the right man for the job,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “Rubio is really lucky to have Cesar Conda as his chief of staff.” Conda, known among colleagues for his even temper, has been working on the issue since the early 1990s when he was part of a group of young, libertarian-minded, pro-immigration conservatives. His government experience runs deep: He worked for former Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., and was an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. He also spent time in the private sector as a lobbyist and analyst for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and founded the Washington office of a consulting firm called Navigators Global.
Serena Hoy, chief counsel, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
For years, Hoy thought she wanted to work in foreign policy—and with a broad language portfolio that includes Spanish, French, Arabic, and Hebrew, it was definitely within reach. But after working at the immigration clinic at Yale Law School, she decided that this issue was “a nice marriage” of her interests in law and foreign affairs. She worked as an immigration lawyer with nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C., and Florida before coming to Reid’s office in spring 2005 as an adviser on immigration policy and other Judiciary Committee issues. “He comes from a state where there are a lot of immigrants who would be helped by this bill and he’s been hearing from those immigrants personally for many years,” Hoy said of Reid’s connection to the issue. Her day-to-day job puts her in frequent communication with the staffers on the Gang of Eight and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and she’ll soon be involved in the process of helping educate the caucus on the bill, work with outside advocates, and anticipate amendments. “Everything is … heading in a very good direction,” she said. “So I am cautiously quite optimistic.”
Matthew Virkstis, senior counsel, Senate Judiciary Committee
There was a time when it didn’t look like Virkstis would become an immigration lawyer. After graduating from college, he was a fly-fishing guide in the Rocky Mountains for four years. But after that, the Vermont native returned to his home state to get a J.D. at Vermont Law School, and then a desire to get involved in public policy led him to Leahy and the Judiciary Committee in 2005. His first eight months were spent in the intense preparation for the confirmation hearings of three Bush Supreme Court nominees, but after that he started working with the counsel handling immigration. Now, it’s his main issue, along with guns—which has made for a busy spring. He works alongside Chief Counsel and Deputy Staff Director Kristine Lucius, a longtime aide, and Senior Counsel John Amaya. “For Chairman Leahy, there’s a real humanitarian angle to this in terms of doing good for people who are here and are contributing to our society,” he said. Reflecting on the lessons from the last immigration-reform effort, he and his boss will strive to keep the focus on the people and families affected by reform. “Building consensus is just key,” he said.
Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, legislative assistant, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa
After graduating from Denison University in 1998, Kovarik went straight to work for Grassley, and she’s been there ever since. With 15 years under her belt, she’s had plenty of experience advocating for Grassley’s issues on the Judiciary Committee, where he is ranking member. “She is absolutely tireless in representing the senator on the immigration issues,” said Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower immigration levels. Kovarik—who Jenks described as one of the hardest workers on the Hill—will be a key staffer working on behalf of members like Grassley who are pushing back against any rush to pass the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill through the committee. Grassley is an advocate for reforms of the high-skilled worker visas, E-Verify, and border security, but is far less enthusiastic about providing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Hot Seats is a weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the April 8, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.