Mario Diaz-Balart spoke bluntly to his fellow U.S. House Republicans during a closed-door meeting at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club.
“Immigration is the 800-pound gorilla,” the Miami congressman told the room of vote-counting whips just seven days after last November’s election.
“The 800-pound gorilla just punched us in the face.”
Indeed, Hispanic voters had turned from Republicans in record numbers, in heavy measure because of the way the party’s candidates handled immigration.
But beyond the political numbers, Diaz-Balart said, the immigration policy data mattered even more.
About 11 million immigrants illegally live in the country. The system is broken. The time to fix it, he said, is during a non-election year.
“After I was done speaking, unlike in previous years, a huge number of my colleagues on the whip team came up to me to tell me it was time to do it,” Diaz-Balart told The Herald.
“What really changed,” he said, “was a willingness by many to confront the small handful of members who have been very vocal against doing anything, against doing anything realistic.”
That day, Nov. 13, marks not just a turning point in the immigration debate, but a significant moment in Diaz-Balart’s political career.
Today, the longtime lawmaker plays one of the most-crucial Washington roles in immigration that many have never heard about.
The scion of Miami’s preeminent Cuban exile family, Diaz-Balart is a former state legislator, five-term congressman and former nephew by marriage of Fidel Castro and cousin to the dictator’s first son and namesake.
Diaz-Balart’s oldest brother, Lincoln, left Congress in 2010, having passed a significant Central American immigration-citizenship law and a codification of the Cuban embargo.
As Lincoln (they’re known by many in Miami by just their first names) served in his last term, Mario emerged as an even more important immigration-reform player.
The contrast with his fellow Miami Republican and friend, Sen. Marco Rubio, is sharp.
Rubio, a fixation of the national press, has saturated the news media as a leading member of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” which has met for the past four months.
By comparison, Mario Diaz-Balart has operated far more in the shadows, where his friendly back-slapping consensus building style has smooth over partisan rifts.
Ever since 2009, Diaz-Balart and a bipartisan group of House members have clandestinely met on and off to hammer out an immigration-reform bill. The bill was about 90 percent finished when it was shelved in 2011, as the new Republican House leadership showed as little interest in tackling reform as the old Democratic House leadership.
The bill is being updated and, as the Senate votes on its similar version, will be publicly introduced soon either as one mammoth piece of legislation or in parts.
Regardless of its final form, the House bill sounds like a blueprint for what became the more publicized Senate deal.
Because immigration reform has to go through a House run by Republicans — a party less inclined over the years to support comprehensive immigration reform — Diaz-Balart’s part in getting a final law out of Congress rivals, if not surpasses, that of Rubio, who serves in a Democrat-controlled chamber.