Reporters spot the Hispanic-American lawmaker in the corridors of the Capitol and, almost instantly, they swarm him. He’s used to it by now. His signature issue, immigration, is bubbling to the top of the legislative surface, and everyone wants his take. As the questions come in rapid-fire format, he switches seamlessly between English and Español, sounding part politician, part professor. He’s good at this. He’s young. He’s articulate. He’s bilingual.
And, no, he’s not Marco Rubio.
He is Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a heretofore little-known legislator whom Washington insiders now realize might be more consequential to the long-term prospects of immigration reform than anyone—even the freshman senator from Florida. The reason is pure arithmetic: The Senate is a small crowd where Republicans are in the minority; the House is a massive mob where Republicans are in the majority. If Rubio’s mission is to provide cover for a handful of reticent Senate Republicans, Labrador’s lift is much heavier—he must convince a legion of skeptical House conservatives that overhauling immigration is both good policy and smart politics. It’s a daunting task, but those who have watched Labrador work say he’s the man for the job.
“Raul Labrador will be more important to getting [immigration reform] passed through Congress than Marco Rubio,” said an unaffiliated House GOP aide who has observed the lawmaker’s influence expand within the conservative faction of the House Republican Conference. The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, added matter-of-factly, “It will not be signed into law without him.”
Labrador’s sudden ascension has surprised some on the Hill. How has this second-term lawmaker—who wasn’t even supposed to win his 2010 primary race—become the de facto leader of House Republicans on the legislative battle that could define the 113th Congress? “He knows what he believes, and he came here and stood firmly for it.… That carries a lot of respect,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, explaining how Labrador has quickly become a leader among House conservatives. “Raul, he’s just a nice guy. He advocates and fights for his principles in a way that’s attractive. Plus, he’s knowledgeable on lots of issues—first and foremost being immigration. So he’s a natural.”
Because of both his ethnicity and his experience, Labrador fills a void in a homogeneous House GOP Conference that has lacked leadership on immigration reform. A native of Puerto Rico, he speaks Spanish fluently. He worked for 15 years as an immigration lawyer, representing a variety of clients, including illegal immigrants facing deportation. He has an intimate understanding of the system’s inner workings—and its flaws. These traits made him an obvious choice for the Judiciary Committee, which will be ground zero for reform efforts in the House.
Perhaps more consequential than Labrador’s immigration expertise is his standing among conservatives. Nicknamed “The Governor” by his comrades—some of whom fear they will lose him to an Idaho gubernatorial bid in 2014—Labrador commands respect from all corners of the party’s House caucus. At a recent forum for conservative lawmakers, Labrador tangled with Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a hard-liner who has long opposed “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. As Labrador challenged King’s arguments—something that until recently would have been unimaginable from a fellow Republican—other conservatives could be seen exchanging glances and nodding in agreement. The symbolism was unmistakable. It was a changing of the guard on immigration.
It’s not that Labrador is embracing a liberal approach to immigration reform—far from it. He is hawkish on securing the borders and punishing those who hire illegal laborers. He is also not sold on the idea of providing citizenship to those who entered the country unlawfully. Still, Labrador realizes the government cannot deport 11 million people. So he is attempting to strike a balance that reconciles conservative ideology with political reality. He says illegal immigrants should be given legal status, but not until border-security measures are enacted and employment-verification systems are in place. Then, much later, there would be a discussion about citizenship—and Labrador would insist that applicants begin at the back of the line.
Labrador is pleased, but not surprised, that conservatives are deferring to his leadership. “I think it’s the fact that I’m a pretty serious person on the issue,” he explained. “Also, I’ve been able to establish my conservative credentials over the last two years, so there’s no doubt about where I come from. And I think conservatives understand that we need to get something done, so they are kind of relying on my expertise and my judgment on this.”
Indeed they are. Just last weekend, as most members headed home to their districts, Labrador flew to western Michigan with Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., his good friend and fellow conservative. The trip’s purpose was to discuss immigration reform with an array of constituents, including Hispanics. It’s not often that lawmakers will ask a colleague to come to their district to speak on a specific topic, but Labrador said he has been invited on several such trips recently. In fact, one House aide said some offices were upset that Amash landed Labrador as a guest speaker when others had also requested visits.
A man in demand, Labrador has major responsibilities as the immigration debate revs up, not only to his fellow Republicans but also to the seven other members of a bipartisan House working group that is crafting a comprehensive reform package. He is seen as the rudder of that group, perhaps because he is the only member who can silence someone like King and still be invited to headline a panel on the future of immigration reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
That ability to appeal to conservatives while rejecting traditional conservative rhetoric is perhaps what sets Labrador apart—and why he so frequently draws comparisons to his Hispanic counterpart in the upper chamber. Still, he cringes at being called “the Marco Rubio of the House.”
“I’m the Raul Labrador of the House,” he said.