From shadows to spotlight, Mario Diaz-Balart plays powerful role in immigration talks

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.

Diaz-Balart and his fellow members of the group won’t talk about their bill, their deals, discussions or progress. The House group has no flashy nicknames. Unlike the sieve-like Senate, the House members and staffers didn’t leak info for years. They weren’t regular features on the Sunday talk-show circuit.

The House group meetings were held in different rooms in Washington. Some staffers made sure they weren’t seen congregating outside meeting so as not to arouse attention. A few wouldn’t acknowledge each other in a friendly fashion in public..

Was there a secret handshake?

“I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you," Diaz-Balart quipped.

The club was, members say, the best-kept secret in Washington, where secrets have a shelf life about three minutes. The club was anti-Washington in this regard as well: It was all about consensus, finding common ground and not scoring points.

No votes are taken. Harsh words, threats and posturing are looked down upon.

“No one feels like a loser,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat.

“One day, Mario said ‘Luis, we really have to never end a sentence with the phrase: ‘this will kill the deal.’ It was a great idea. And ever since, we don’t do it. And it’s not only me. It’s everyone in the group.”

Among Diaz-Balart’s better qualities, Gutiérrez said, is his ability to “take off his partisan hat” — a feat for a member of the Republican whip team.

Before the two were to appear last week on the Univision’s Al Punto — a Meet the Press-like show for Spanish-speaking political junkies — Diaz-Balart lobbied Gutiérrez on the House floor to do the interview together.

“We’re really working together. Shouldn’t we exemplify that by appearing together?” Diaz-Balart said.

So they sat side-by-side, unlike Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and Rubio, who appeared separately on the same broadcast.

“Unlike other Republicans — who are great and I love working with them — who always talk exclusively about enforcement,” Gutiérrez said, “Mario talks about the 1,400 people who are deported every day. He talks about the effect on the family. You can see it on Al Punto.”

“If you didn’t know it, that he was a Republican from Florida, you would think that he was a Democrat,” Gutiérrez said.

Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican, also sits on the secret immigration group and is a member of the House whip team with Diaz-Balart.

“When he speaks at the whip meetings, it’s because he has something important to say,” he said. “There are those who get up and speak all the time about every single topic. Then, there are those like Mario — very few — who don’t talk all the time and only speak when they have something to say. Everybody stops and listens.”

Denham recalls the “passion” of Diaz-Balart’s speech at the team’s first meeting after the election, when he discussed the harm of splitting up families through deportation.

Diaz-Balart also noted he had been warning Republicans for a decade about handling immigration reform. Fellow Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had been doing it for longer as had Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

The three in 2010 accounted for the eight Republican House votes in favor of the DREAM Act, which provides a citizenship path for certain students and military-bound younger people. The act failed in the Senate amid strong Republican opposition.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Coral Gables resident who co-wrote the just published “Immigration Wars” policy book, said he’s “not surprised” that Diaz-Balart is in this role.

“Mario is a connector,” Bush said. “When I was governor, and he was a legislator, and I had something big to do, he was always at the top of the list. He’s not confrontational. He is smart, but he listens well. He shares credit. He’s not grandstanding.”

But Diaz-Balart has his critics, particularly on the right. Some conservatives fret about the “amnesty” of legalizing the status of so many illegally in the country.

To those Republicans, newly elected tea party Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador — also an immigration working-group member — might have more sway, either to attract their votes or mute their criticisms.

But Diaz-Balart, particularly in English-speaking media, makes it clear he’s no liberal. He often speaks forcefully about border-security and ensuring that those seeking legalized status pay fines and serve a prolonged probation-like period to wait their turn.

“We need to lower the rhetoric,” Diaz-Balart said Friday at the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network’s conference in Coral Gables.

“Lower the decibels,” he said.

About the same time, though, some congressional Republicans were already linking the immigration bill with last week’s Boston Marathon terror attacks, likely committed by two legal immigrants.

Diaz-Balart said it was too early to link the issues, but he pointed out that the crime occurred amid the current immigration system.

And beyond the policy, there still stand the politics.

The non-Hispanic white vote — the GOP’s base — is proportionately shrinking as the Hispanic vote is growing overall. Hispanics are also trending more Democrat because GOP rhetoric has sometimes sounded offensive and the party has come across as too-often opposed to immigration reform law.

“Both parties have used immigration as a political tool,” Diaz-Balart said. “The difference is: It has worked for Democrats as a wedge. For Republicans, immigration has been suicide.”

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