About a month before Donald Trump — then merely a celebrity real-estate mogul — completed the purchase of the Doral Resort & Spa, the hotel hosted a conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a fledgling Republican group created to grow the party’s Latino outreach.
A discussion titled “Immigration Policy and the Hispanic Workforce” featured four prominent Republicans urging lawmakers to pursue comprehensive immigration legislation. One of the panelists was the dean of Florida International University’s law school, Alex Acosta.
“We need someone that’s going to say we have to enact comprehensive immigration solutions,” Acosta said at the Jan. 27, 2012, conference. “Part of that means figuring out what we do with all the individuals that are already in our nation. We need them here. They provide construction jobs. They provide agricultural jobs. We need to figure out a way to address that.
“We need to figure out a way to then have a pathway to further future legal immigration. And if we don’t take it all at once, we’re not going to solve it, because you can’t solve part of it without solving the other part. You can’t address immigration without answering what do you do with individuals that are already in the United States.”
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Acosta is now President Trump’s second nominee for labor secretary. And if the experience of Andy Puzder, Trump’s first nominee, is any indication, Acosta’s moderate immigration views could be problematic ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Puzder, a fast-food executive who withdrew his nomination last week after failing to garner enough support from Senate Republicans, had advocated for immigration reform, including for a “path to legal status” for most immigrants in the country illegally.
Other revelations — that Puzder failed to pay taxes for hiring an undocumented housekeeper, and that his ex-wife had told “The Oprah Winfrey Show” he once abused her — ultimately derailed Puzder’s nomination. (His ex-wife later retracted those allegations.) But Puzder’s immigration views had put him at odds from the start with at least two top Trump White House advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who favor a much harder line.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on Acosta’s remarks. Like other would-be Cabinet members, Acosta has not granted news interviews following his nomination.
The embarrassment of Puzder’s failed Cabinet appointment might have pushed Trump to nominate Acosta, perhaps the most conventional of choices for a Republican president. Acosta is a Harvard-educated lawyer who clerked for Judge Samuel Alito before Alito joined the Supreme Court. He cleared three Bush-era Senate confirmations — for positions on the National Labor Relations Board and in the Justice Department — and would be the only Hispanic on Trump’s Cabinet if confirmed again.
In the 2012 panel, Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants, spoke about immigration in emotional terms, citing President Ronald Reagan’s final address before leaving the White House, in which he referred to the American pilgrim “looking for a home that would be free.”
“Well, the reality is, today, we have people journeying here on little wooden boats or rafts made of tires tied together, and they’re coming here for the exact same reason: because they’re looking for a home that will be free,” he said. “That’s an experience that so many of us that grew up here in Miami have.”
He recalled that, as Miami U.S. attorney, he had “horrific” immigration-related experiences, including meeting the parents of an 8-year-old Cuban boy.
“The boy had drowned in a passage coming from Cuba, and they were in my office thanking me, because they at least were able to stay in this nation,” he said. “I had a case where a woman was raped repeatedly on her way over from Haiti because the smugglers — the folks, the coyotes that brought her over — abused her, and she allowed it because for her that was the price of passage to our nation.”
“And so the cost of illegal immigration is not simply exclusion, but it’s abuse of those individuals that are looking to our nation as beacons of freedom,” Acosta continued. “And so we need to take it on, and we need to figure out a way to address illegal immigration and give everyone a pathway to get here legally, in a transparent and in a fair way.”
Acosta also objected to the term “border security” referring solely to immigrant control, noting that drugs and weapons were also smuggled into the country. And he denounced the immigration system as overly bureaucratic.
“I was the federal prosecutor, and when there were immigration issues, I had to get out the directory and start figuring out which agency does this and which agency does that and which agency does that,” he said. “When even the folks on the inside have trouble figuring out the system, that really speaks to: It is a very, very broken system, and it’s time to change it.”
Acosta’s immigration views are consistent with most elected Miami Republicans, who have often clashed with more conservative GOP factions when it comes to how to deal with people in the country illegally. Some FIU faculty have requested that the campus serve as a “sanctuary” for undocumented students, meaning that the university wouldn’t cooperate with federal authorities if they come looking for students to question, detain or deport.
The same day Acosta spoke on the 2012 Hispanic Leadership Network panel, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio delivered a stirringly personal speech to the conference about immigration. (Rubio has since backed away from backing comprehensive immigration legislation.) One of the biggest names involved in the now-defunct Hispanic Leadership Network was Jeb Bush, who on Tuesday praised Acosta on Twitter as an “outstanding addition” to Trump’s Cabinet.
Acosta’s 2012 panel included two former Cabinet secretaries under President George W. Bush — Carlos Gutierrez, who headed the Commerce Department, and Margaret Spellings of the Education Department — and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, all of whom embraced the sort of immigration policies advocated by both Bush brothers: secure borders and penalties for unauthorized immigrants, but no massive deportations.
The Trump administration on Tuesday unveiled new Homeland Security rules that expose to expulsion most of the people illegally in the country.