As far as members of Congress go, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is a pretty low-key 11-term Republican Congressman. You’d never guess he is at the center of the most contentious political battle on Capitol Hill – the fight over immigration reform.
I recently interviewed the 62-year-old Goodlatte about the stalled effort to reform America’s broken immigration laws for a Fox News Latino exclusive. The congressman is a lawyer and when he was in private practice over half of his clients were immigrants seeking legal status.
Goodlatte believes the “status quo” on immigration is not acceptable and said he is “ready to move now, I’m ready to move after the election, I’m ready to move in the next Congress.”
After last week’s defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor the prospects for immigration reform took a dive.
Goodlatte told reporters Cantor’s defeat reduced any chances of passing reform before the August recess to less than slim. Cantor’s opponent accused him of favoring “amnesty” and got conservative talk radio hosts to join in attacking Cantor as helping big business bring cheap labor into the U.S.
“I think members need to recognize that [immigration reform] is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and that it is not getting any better,” Goodlatte told me before Cantor’s loss.
“The more time that goes by, the more the distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration, one being a good thing, the other being an undesirable thing, they’re getting blurred by the president, by state legislatures and so on.”
He was referring to President Obama’s 2012 executive order halting the deportation of undocumented immigrants who meet the criteria of the DREAM Act – those who either enroll in college or enlist in the military. This executive order still upsets conservatives today.
However, Republicans, including Goodlatte, seem unwilling to acknowledge the aggressive job President Obama has done enforcing existing immigration laws – particularly through deportations. Last week, Goodlatte put out a statement blaming President Obama for the increased number of child refugees crossing the border.
“Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies,” he said.
But data from the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Research Center tell a more complex story. PBS reported in January 2014: “In one term, the Obama Administration has deported roughly 80 percent the number of immigrants the George W. Bush administration deported in two.”
Many supporters of immigration reform are critical of the President for being too tough on undocumented immigrants.
As Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, told my friend and Fox News colleague Mara Liasson in a recent NPR interview:
“The president made a bad bet, that if he ramped up enforcement to record levels he would win over skeptical Republicans who might support him on passing immigration reform. It is highly likely that that's going to turn out to not work and what is likely is that he's going to be forced with not only the responsibility for record deportations, but the obligation to do something about it.”
Goodlatte understands the severity of the problem.
“We have a legal immigration system that is not working well,” he said. “It is not maximizing the creation of jobs in this country for Americans. We could be doing all of those things, if we do immigration reform.”
He said it was important for the Republican Party to spell out its position on the issue.
“And even if we don't agree with the president, and don't agree with the Senate bill, and I certainly do not agree with the Senate bill,” he said, “we should not be fearful of putting forward our own ideas of how to address this issue.”
Goodlatte is quick to push back against the criticism that his committee is stalling comprehensive immigration, such as the bipartisan bill passed by the U.S. Senate last year with the support of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
“We’ve already passed four bills out of the committee,” he said. “I believe that there is bipartisan support for those and for other bills that would come along behind those bills. And so I think the appropriate thing is to take the next step in this step by step approach that we outlined when I became chairman last year, and that is to start moving legislation to the floor of the house.”
So, where do we go from here?
“The timing of that, in my opinion, is dependent upon two things: One – getting a very strong majority of Republicans to support [a bill].” He later explained that he “can’t speak for [the GOP caucus] I can only speak to them, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year and a half making sure they understand the depth of these issues, but also the importance of [immigration reform].”
Will he go ahead if he knows he will have to rely on votes from Democrats to pass reform?
“You’re also correct, that if we don't have an overwhelming majority, then we have to have some Democrats come and support us,” he indicated. “I think one of the other of those two things will happen, but the best way to, to find out is to move forward on that.
“Now again, we can’t do it unless we have a clear signal from a solid majority of Republicans in the House that they’re now ready to move. And I'm ready to move now. I'm ready to move after the election. I'm ready to move in the next Congress.”
That declaration by Chairman Goodlatte surprised me. He says he wants to act now – or early in the next Congress, at the latest.
“I do believe that immigration reform needs to be done, because the status quo is simply not adequate. And for those who are very concerned about illegal immigration, it should not be adequate for them either.”
It is now up to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and Eric Cantor to put a bill on the House floor for a vote.
And after this week, at least one of them has nothing left to lose politically.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.