While the momentum around possible immigration reform legislation in the House has focused on the last few months, one Latino Republican has been working on the issue on Capitol Hill for about a decade. Cesar Gonzalez, chief of Staff to Florida Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, is one of a very small group of senior legislative aides who has been sifting through the complexity of immigration laws to try to reach agreement across the aisle. His boss, Rep. Diaz-Balart, is part of a group of 7 trying to craft bipartisan legislation in the House.
“During the last four years, we have been meeting sometimes two or three times a week, for 2 or 3 hours, and they’re very intense negotiations,” says Gonzalez. “It’s not just writing the bill, but learning the immigration system, which is complicated. When you start to move one piece here you affect two or three other pieces,” he explains.
Gonzalez says the small group’s members have become experts on minute details of immigration law. “We come from different sides of the aisle – but we’ve become good friends,” he says.
Gonzalez first worked for Rep. Diaz-Balart’s brother Lincoln when he was in Congress, and was assigned to handle some immigration-related issues. He started working on agricultural workers and jobs in 2006 or 2007. This year, the agreement between the United Farm Workers and growers which became part of the Senate bill was seen as a real breakthrough and key for House negotiations.
The 38-year-old son of parents who came from Cuba, Gonzalez says he sympathizes with young immigrants, since his parents faced uncertain years when they first got to the U.S. His mother, who came through the Peter Pan program, spent time in several cities without her parents, and his father came by himself “until he ran into former neighbors who took him in.”
“We can give these kids and some other immigrants a chance to flourish and succeed. We’ve seen how immigrants turned Miami from more of a backwater town to a cosmopolitan city. Immigrants built Miami,” he says, speaking of his hometown.
When asked about an immigration bill out of the House in the fall, Gonzalez said he agreed with Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez who said the House will be dealing with the same issues as the Senate bill, but in a different way. Gonzalez said it was a matter of how House members “thread the needle,” including whether they split the legislation into different pieces.
Still, Gonzalez was optimistic when asked about the prospects of immigration reform legislation hitting President Obama’s desk this fall.
“I’ve seen a lot of groups coming together – what we call ‘Bible, badges and business’ get organized this time, and it has helped us on this side of the aisle,” he says, acknowledging it’s been a tougher sell in his party. “Some of the outlier groups are always going to make noise; that’s almost their business model.”
Despite this, Gonzalez says that “in the 10 years I’ve been doing this, it’s the closest we’ve come.”