Through most of last year, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart asked dozens of members, aides, advocates and reporters to trust him: He had a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that could actually pass the House.
The proposed legislation that drove the Florida Republican for months ultimately came up short. But one week into the 114th Congress, with tensions around the immigration debate as high as ever, Diaz-Balart said there are rumblings about reviving the bill — the details of which were never shared publicly — that imploded last summer.
“It’s already started,” he told CQ Roll Call last week, seated in his Capitol Hill office across from the rumpled pages of a draft bill some skeptics have dismissed as imaginary.
The dog-eared pages were overflowing from the white, industrial-sized binder typically locked safely inside a desk drawer belonging to Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff, Cesar Gonzalez. As Gonzalez flipped through the binder, the characteristic spacing and style of the bill text was unreadable at a distance, but it was instantly recognizable as the real thing.
The story of Diaz-Balart’s immigration bill in the 113th Congress — how it was born, how it thrived and how it died — has always been kept under close wraps. But he recently shared with CQ Roll Call the details of his efforts in 2013 and 2014 — and his thoughts on whether 2015 could be a year when something actually happens.
The Light Bulb Moment
For years Diaz-Balart, now in his seventh term, was part of a not-so-secret bipartisan group of House lawmakers trying to craft legislation to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.
By fall 2013, the latest incarnation of that working group had officially collapsed, though Diaz-Balart was eager to keep going.
A Latino lawmaker and one of a few House Republicans openly invested in passing legislation to give undocumented immigrants legal status, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Then he had his “light bulb moment.”
At an informal dinner with colleagues shortly after the working group’s demise, a fellow lawmaker made an offhand remark about one of the major obstacles in the debate.
Diaz-Balart wouldn’t say what exactly was mentioned, but said he and Gonzalez, who was also in attendance, instantly recognized that clearing that hurdle could bring Republicans on board with a proposal that tightened border security while also dealing with the question of legal status.
“It was like, ‘Whoa. This could be an angle, a potential way to solve one of the biggest problems that we had,’” he recalled. “It showed us there was a way to move forward.”