WASHINGTON — Immigration — one of the most complex and divisive issues facing the country — suddenly has new life on Capitol Hill.
President Barack Obama vows to make it a priority early next year and Republicans, chastened by the election outcome, are determined to put their imprint on long-elusive reform.
But there is significant disagreement over how to proceed and how far to go, a divide captured by two Floridians, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Sen. Marco Rubio, Cuban-American Republicans from Miami who could be crucial bridges to a bipartisan solution.
Rubio, lifted but also constrained by the issue due to his status as a conservative star with presidential ambitions, wants to go step by step.
"Usually when Congress approaches issues of this magnitude with one big bill, it almost always requires you to swallow five really bad ideas in exchange for one good one," he said in an interview. "We're going to get better public policy if we focus on each of these apart from each other."
Diaz-Balart is echoing Democratic calls, and emerging support among other Republicans, for a comprehensive approach that includes everything from better enforcement to handling the 11 million undocumented residents already living in the United States.
"To pretend you can fix a broken system by tweaking one aspect is not solving the problem. It's broken from A to Z," Diaz-Balart said.
"That's the million-dollar question, which is the better approach?" said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, who was in President George W. Bush's administration when sweeping reform collapsed in 2007 under opposition from both parties.
Doing it Rubio's way could bring on enough Republicans to achieve a deal. But that approach also provides political cover and could leave important policy in the trash bin.
"I know people that are in the immigration advocacy community are concerned that we'll only pass the easy stuff and leave the hard stuff. I don't want to see that either," Rubio said. "We can figure out a sequence."
The Diaz-Balart approach could repeat past failure.
"They both feel a growing and unavoidable sense of responsibility as Republican Hispanics to lead on this issue," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who is close to both Florida lawmakers. "It's an opportunity for both of them to burnish some legislative credentials."
"Marco has seen that comprehensive reform has failed and is trying to think outside the box," she said. Still, "there's no point to bringing in more Republicans if you lose Democrats. An incremental approach would be a very hard sell."
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For Republicans, the 2007 effort marked the rise of a conservative backlash to anything deemed amnesty and forced politicians, including Rubio during his 2010 Senate run, to adopt harder line positions on enforcement. That continued in the 2012 election, sentiment captured by Mitt Romney saying he would make things so difficult for undocumented residents they would "self-deport." Romney got a dismal 27 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote.
Now Rubio, 41, is trying to manage his party's newfound eagerness to win over Hispanics as he feels out a possible run for president. So he speaks broadly about the issue, or focuses on changing the tone in which Republicans address it.
"He's trying to have it both ways," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for tighter enforcement before broader steps are taken. "It's not going to be fatal to support legalizing illegal immigrants who came here when they were very young. But any bill that has a broader amnesty in it would end his presidential prospects."
Diaz-Balart, by contrast, has little political risk.
His district in Miami is exceedingly safe (he just won a sixth term with 76 percent of the vote) and many of his constituents are Hispanic. He was one of the few Republicans to vote for the Dream Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants.
Rubio opposes the Dream Act but used it as the basis for a proposal to grant legal status to some youth. The idea came under attack from some conservatives and Rubio has yet to release details. He said he will reveal his plan early next year, though the election has emboldened young activists and Democrats to push for the full Dream Act.
Obama, who failed to deliver on promised reform in his first term, told activists Tuesday that it would be his top priority after the inauguration. Getting what he wants will require help from Republicans.
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A broad deal would continue a legacy for the Diaz-Balart family. His older brother, retired Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, turned back changes that denied disability benefits and food stamps to legal immigrants and in 1997 was the driving force behind the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which granted legal residency to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States.
"I'm not naive," Mario Diaz-Balart said. "This is a very difficult, controversial and emotional issue. It has been used by both parties as an election tool. But it's pretty obvious it hasn't worked well for Republicans."
With renewed interest among the GOP, Diaz-Balart has emerged as a leader in the House, working quietly with two California Democrats, Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra, to forge legislation. A similar group of eight senators has begun talks.
Conspicuously absent: Rubio, who has devoted more of his public time recently to pitching himself as an advocate for the middle class. He did not mention immigration reform in a high-profile speech he gave in Washington earlier this month. Some of his advisers want him to avoid being labeled the Hispanic politician with a singular focus.
"We still haven't made any firm decisions about which process we're going to plug into to get engaged," Rubio said. "But we're going to have some specific ideas about immigration soon."
Diaz-Balart says any approach has to include a way to deal with the 11 million undocumented residents. Immigrant advocates want a pathway to citizenship but many conservatives view that as amnesty, even if immigrants had to pay a fine, have no criminal record and demonstrate command of English.
Diaz-Balart, 51, rejected an alternative to create legal status for undocumented residents, so they can live without fear of deportation and gain other rights (but not the right to vote) while pursuing citizenship through regular channels. That's essentially a bigger version of what Rubio wants with his Dream Act alternative.
Hispanics see that as fair, said Korn of the Hispanic Leadership Network. But advocates fear something short of that will shake out.
"One of the things we shouldn't accept is having a permanent group of people in the U.S. who are in legal limbo or are in a different category that doesn't allow them to participate in the future of America," Diaz-Balart said. "Some say it's too difficult a lift. I understand. If it was easy, we would have done it a long time ago.
"It's always risky but that's why people elect us. We have to lead," he continued.
"He's been a great ally," said Chris Espinosa, national advocacy director for the Hispanic Federation, which wants a comprehensive overhaul. "There's a recognition among the GOP that if they want to be relevant moving into the future, they need to address the issues in the Hispanic community. We want to have a substantive dialogue. I don't think Sen. Rubio is there yet, but I'm hopeful he will be."
Rubio said he doesn't want a second class of residents, either, but acknowledges his own difficulty on the issue. "I don't have a magic answer for that. We're not going to deport 11 million people but we're also not going to grant blanket amnesty to 11 million people.
"Somewhere between those two positions is a workable solution that deals with this issue in a responsible and humane way but doesn't encourage illegal immigration in the future and doesn't punish or is unfair to the people that have done it the right way," he said. "We forget that there are millions of people that are waiting to come into this country legally."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]