The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart

R-Fla.

Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is a seven-term congressman who in 2013 was part of the "Gang of Eight" that sought to draft an immigration reform bill that could pass the House of Representatives.

The push for reform followed the passage of legislation in the Senate that would have increased security on the U.S.-Mexico border while establishing a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. But the effort collapsed in 2014.

Diaz-Balart says that had President Barack Obama not waited until his second term, that reform could have passed Congress. Instead, he says, the administration chose not to prioritize the issue. "We had a bipartisan bill" in 2009, says Diaz-Balart. "... But at the time when we were developing the bill it became pretty evident that the president not only was not interested in helping, but didn't want to get it done."

In the following interview, Diaz-Balart looks back at why immigration reform failed, and explains why he sees "no possibility of it succeeding again."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Sept. 27, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Obama comes in. Immigration reform [proves] to be one of the things that he has been pushing in the election. What are the expectations within the Republican Party, within your group? Where are we in January 2009?

Where we are in January 2009 is the president, the newly elected president, had said that he was going to get this done in his first year. It was a huge priority for him, and the good news is that the House was already working. We were working, and we had a bipartisan bill, and it was tough going, but we actually were able to put everything on the table, get rid of things that didn't make sense, and we were able to have, in essence, a pretty much almost entirely finished bill that secured the border, which is what the right wants and needs, dealt with the millions of undocumented in a way that is fair, permanent, adhering to the rule of law, and it was bipartisan. So imagine my disappointment when all of a sudden the president, who had the goodwill of the American public, a newly elected president who was doing really well in the polls, and all of a sudden the one who kills this bipartisan effort is the president with Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House. The ones who kill it are the ones who were publicly stating that this was a huge priority, because the question is, wait a second, if you have a bipartisan bill, if you have a Democratic president that makes this a huge priority, one of his top priorities in his first year, you have 60 percent of the votes in the Senate, Democrats and obviously a group of Republicans that are willing to go along with it as well, then why didn't it happen?

The one who killed it, the one who killed immigration reform, was President Obama with the help of the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Why? I mean, first there is the stimulus, and then there is health care. What is going on? What are the excuses that are being made to you or your Democratic cohorts?

Well, it's interesting, because after that, I have heard a million excuses; that he was busy. Well, the reality is that he didn't have to do anything; he just had to not kill it. He just had to say, "Hey, let's move forward." And the House, we had a bipartisan bill. So there are millions of reasons and excuses, but at the time when we were developing the bill, it became pretty evident that the president not only was not interested in helping, but didn't want to get it done. We couldn't get basic answers for technical questions from the administration, because they clearly had no interest in getting it done.

I'm going to skip ahead, because we've only got a short amount of time. 2010 happens, the House goes Republican; that adjusts the numbers. 2012 happens, and lo and behold, it's like the Republicans, [Eric] Cantor, [John] Boehner, they have the "autopsy" report, and they say: "Oh, my God, [the] Hispanic population in America is growing. Lo and behold, maybe we've got to do something." Obama, on the other hand, is going: "I've been getting a lot of pressure for four years. I made promises four years ago and didn't keep them. Maybe I've got to do something now, too." What are the dynamics after 2012? How does the election in 2012 change things toward the idea that now is the time?

Among the majority of Republicans, there was a realization that this is an issue that has not gone away; it's not going to go away; and, frankly, it needs to be dealt with. I think the Republican leadership always understood that, but I think from the membership, there was a reawakening of the fact that this is a real issue; it's not going away; it's not going to get easier; and it has to be dealt with. Now, from the president of the United States, from President Obama, we had so many incidents where we--for example, my chief of staff wanted to get together privately, separately, in a secret place to talk about, to coordinate quietly, and we couldn't get the president or the White House to do that. We couldn't get the president or the White House to even speak to us, not publicly, but there was that well-known incident where my chief of staff is speaking to the White House and says: "Look, we're working on this. Is there anything that we need to know about to coordinate?" They said: "No, no, no. The White House is doing nothing on this. There is nothing new." That same day, however, we learned that the president is giving a speech, and yet my chief of staff was lied [to], even about something that they knew we would find out was a lie.

So the White House never cooperated; the White House never took this seriously; and the White House, I think, never wanted to get it done. I think it's because they thought it was a good wedge issue for the elections. But they had multiple opportunities to get it done. Congress was willing and able to go, but they didn't want to do it. ... When they wanted to do it, by that time it was too late.

At this point, by 2012, though, they feel it's not too late. They feel, number one, they're going to put all their chips on the table on the Senate side; that the Senate will get it done. The House will have to follow along; because it would be enough votes, they will be forced to.

Right.

What's going on there? What is the view from the House at the direction it's going, and what is happening in the Senate?

We knew in the House what needed to happen for the House to be able to approve a bill, and that's what we were working on. And I think the White House and potentially the Senate were in this delusional phase that they thought that they could get whatever they wanted to do and force the House to act. We knew that wasn't possible.

So here is the irony: We were working very well in the House. Now, this is a smaller group. The new, I guess, Gang of Six had become the Gang of Eight in the House, and we were working very well, and then it seems that, in particular, one of the members of our group got orders from up above, from Nancy Pelosi and above, that they had to slow down and kill the House effort. In fact, they went out of the way to do that, and that has been pretty well documented in a number of different publications how then all of a sudden Nancy Pelosi kind of told her leadership person who was in this group, to slow down and kill the effort.

... They think that they will get a better bill if it comes from the Senate down instead of the House up, but they don't understand the dynamics of what is going on in the House, the Hastert Rule [majority of the majority], the dynamics of who is in the power, the Tea Party group that has taken on more power in the power dynamics of Boehner in leadership. What's going on?

It's no secret that the president was pretty clueless as to the dynamics of the legislature, had no real relationships with anybody in the House, but here is the interesting thing: [Congressman] Luis Gutiérrez, who was one of the key members of our group, kept telling them: "Hey, guys, you're misreading this. You don't understand. You're living in a weird realm if you think that you can do that." And for some reason, I don't know why, they refused to believe reality, and once again the net effect was this: The net effect was for a second time in President Obama's administration he, the president, and Nancy Pelosi killed the best chance that Congress had to pass immigration reform, and the best chance was the fact that in the House, where we have all of the extremes, right and left, we had been able to figure out how to get all that taken care of in a way that was acceptable to all the members of the House.

But here is the irony, by the way: Obviously I was talking to the House members right and left, but I was also speaking to the senators, Democrats and Republicans, those that were part of that Gang of Eight and those that were not, so the Senate knew what we were doing; the Senate knew what our bill was. The Senate, I believe, understood the challenges that the House had, but once again, not understanding the reality or being clueless or inept or whatever you want to call it, or maybe worse, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama killed the best, the most likely effort to pass immigration reform.

The reality of what is going on in the Republican Caucus in the House--explain this to us. Why the need for the Hastert Rule, the majority of the majority? What were the dynamics between the leadership within the caucus? It's clear that Boehner and [Paul] Ryan and Cantor were accepting of the fact that this was the time to do this, we needed to do this, but they were constrained. What was going on with the Republican Party, something that the White House didn't get?

I want to make sure that I am being transparent and open to you. Here is what I know: What I know is the speaker, Boehner, told me, told all of us, but he told me, particularly that last effort where it was just a few of us, he said: "Look, you have to get the majority of the majority. That's the so-called Hastert Rule. That's the only way we can actually bring it to the floor and pass it." Because I believe he felt that if we didn't have the majority of the majority, even individuals who were supportive of what we were doing, of the actual legislation, would feel, frankly, that they couldn't go along with it, because on the procedural issue we were not being fair to the majority of the colleagues. So what Boehner insisted on was one thing: "Look, you get the support of your colleagues, get the majority of the majority and obviously make sure that you have some bipartisan support, because otherwise it's not possible; it's all for naught."

This was not an effort to pass a bill in the House and have it just languish and die. This was an effort to actually have this become law. So we needed the majority of the majority in the House; we needed willing Democrats. We had that. And once again, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama decided that they weren't going to have it.

Everything goes south for a while, and then [in] the intervening time, we've got the closing down of the government and the whole controversy over that, Boehner seemingly supportive of the idea that "OK, we're going to push it to close the government down." The way it's told in the press is that he was actually not supportive of it, because they knew the possibilities of the dangers of it, and yet he went ahead with it. What was going on? What were the dynamics behind that?

The whole shutdown thing?

Yeah.

I think part of it was that you have a lot of new people in Congress, and I think that some people genuinely thought, because remember at the time, if I recall, obviously the Republicans controlled the House; Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House; and there were some folks, I think--I attribute that to lack of experience--who somehow believed that on that short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open, that if we put the defunding of the Obamacare there, that somehow we would get the 60 votes in the Senate and that President Obama would sign a bill to defund what is now known as Obamacare, which I think most people realized was not going to happen. But I think that is attributed to, unless you think that people are so cynical that they would do it and say that it was possible when they knew it wasn't possible, I attribute it to that. I attribute that to, frankly, a lot of people who were new, who didn't understand the concept and this process very well, and who must have believed that President Obama would sign a bill defunding Obamacare.

So we again jumped off that cliff together. What happened was what many of us believed would happen, which is that the Democrats in the Senate didn't vote for it, which we expected not to happen, so President Obama didn't have to sign a bill, didn't have to veto the bill defunding Obamacare, which we knew he would have, so we had a two-week shutdown.

And Boehner sees this as an opportunity that maybe immigration can be brought back on the table?

You know, I don't know if the speaker saw this as an opportunity. I will tell you that when the Group of Eight falls apart, I was, frankly, very down, because this had been now years of work and of negotiations and of progress. When that falls apart, there is an informal dinner with a number of House members and senators, Republicans, and we're talking about different things, including immigration reform, and in that dinner I heard one of the senators who had voted against the Senate bill in essence state, "Well, I could support something if the process was the folks that were here, the undocumented, went through the same process that my grandfather went through"; in other words, no more rights, but a process that was fair, adheres to the rules of law, and that it's fair to the folks that have not broken the law.

When he stated that, and this was kind of an informal conversation, after that, when we broke up from that dinner, I walked up to him, and I said, "Did I hear this right?" My chief of staff and I, as soon as he said that, looked at each other, like whoa, this could be an opening. So dinner is over; we're walking out. I walk up to him; I go, "Senator, let me just see if I understood you." And he said, "Yeah, I could; that's something that I could consider." Based on that, what I did with another member who will go nameless, started, based on the product that we had worked on for years, first the Gang of 20, then the Gang of Eight in the House, based on that, I started to see if we could sell that to our colleagues, Republican colleagues, with some tweaking. What ended up happening was in essence almost a rewrite, because what I would do then--a couple of us did this--is I would go meet Republican colleagues, and I would say: "Look, here is what we have been working on. These are some of the issues. What are your thoughts?"

I went to the right, and I started getting then some very specific concerns about some of the specific language in the bill that we had worked on in a bipartisan fashion for years. But those concerns were legitimate concerns, and they weren't [going to] kill the whole thing; it was some legitimate concerns about the rule of law, legitimate concerns about fairness, making sure that we were fair to the folks who had not broken the law. And so I would meet--this is usually one-on-one, sometimes one-on-five, my chief of staff and I in coordination with another member--we would discuss the specifics; go back; my chief of staff would redraft based on the conversation we had just had; and we would go meet them again.

After we did that with a number of members for a few times, all of a sudden it clicked. One of those redrafts then was acceptable to folks on the right in a way that became acceptable, by the way, to then after that just about everybody that we spoke to. Then we realized we had broken the code; we had finally broken the code on the specifics. All of this, by the way, [was] in coordination with Luis Gutiérrez, who knew what we were doing, because we wanted to make sure that it was acceptable not only to Republicans but to Democrats who wanted to get it done, and we realized that we broke the code. That's when the second effort takes place, and that's when we got really close.

So by June of 2014, your count is about 140 in support.

I think it's higher than that actually. I read 140, but--

So tell me at that moment how that happened.

Once we broke the code, and that was done by sitting one-on-one with language, going through the language and then going back and forth, redrafting, redrafting, redrafting, really my chief of staff doing all the drafting, and then all of a sudden we realized, "Whoa, we got it right." And we started getting massive support from Republicans and, again, as you have heard, the support of the Democrats who actually wanted to get this done. Once we did that, then we created our own internal whip team. I'm part of the whip team, but that's not what we did. We actually created our own group of folks, including some of the more hard-right-wing folks and some more moderates, and we started talking with now this real concept to individual members, and we started whipping them. And the whip was we created a spreadsheet from one to five, I believe it was, as to who are the more difficult ones. We had a few that we weren't even--we knew where they were, and I talked to some of them, but we knew that we couldn't get [them], and then we started talking to folks individually, and then it was no longer about just, "Hey, do you support this?" It was: "Do you support two things? Would you be OK for it coming to the floor? And if it came to the"--and that was a yes or no; in other words, that was the count that the speaker needed--and then, "Would you vote for it?" And I believe the 140 was not just--it was higher than that, but let me tell you what happened.

So we're here in Washington; we're whipping it. I fly back home to South Florida on a Friday, I believe, on a Thursday. I don't remember the day. But that weekend with a staffer, one of my staff people in Miami, I spent the entire weekend on the phone, because I had some names, some folks that I still had not gotten to. I think it was about eight or 10. And these were not short conversations, because we had to go through the details of legislation and then the questions and everything else, and after we ran through it. So I had a number of folks that I still had to whip, and I did that on the phone the entire weekend, long conversations.

We fly back on Monday, come back on Monday. In the morning--and all of us had done that; those that hadn't finished had still some calls to make--we regroup on Monday. We turn in our final--the folks who we had finalized whipping, we turned those in to our two staff people. They get it together, and that's when we realized that our numbers were, frankly, better than we ever dreamed of. And this was Monday.

Monday night we are then given the meeting for Thursday morning with the entire leadership team, the speaker and everybody else. The speaker was getting everybody together to then [determine] how we're moving forward on this, because we had the votes; we had the count; we had the hard commitments; we had the legislation. The question is then, we're going to move forward; how do we do it? That meeting was scheduled I believe for 10:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. That's Monday, Monday night.

Tuesday we go through the day. I am frankly really happy. I have a lunch that day, and the day is progressing. I'm frankly extremely happy. That evening--it was scheduled before--I had some folks coming over to my small apartment here, which is a block away from the Capitol. Since we had a small group of folks coming over, and we were in a very happy, celebratory mood, because we knew that we had the votes--we had the Democrats; we had the Republicans; leadership was moving forward on it--we, in essence, it became a celebration. I was walking over. My chief of staff was already there with a group of folks that were in my apartment, and we were celebrating, and I got there. We did a couple toasts, and we were, frankly, really, really happy until that first--I guess it was a tweet came in from one of my colleagues, report of a tweet from one of my colleagues, saying, "Look at this." And I thought, well, it's got to be--I don't know--early count, one precinct or whatever. Of course that's when ... the rug was pulled out from under us.

Cantor's loss.

Cantor's loss, yeah. Now, the irony is--by the way, here is the irony of ironies: Leader Cantor was not one of our big supporters. Leader Cantor was, frankly, one of the skeptics. Now, he understood that we had to get something done; he understood what the issues were, but it wasn't like he was working on this with us. He was working on dealing with the kids on his own, one of the issues that had to get done, but he wasn't one of the folks involved in drafting this legislation; he wasn't one of the folks pushing for us. He was aware of what we were doing, but this is not his effort, but somehow it all got tied to him.

Why does it kill immigration?

Because there were some folks that had, I think, by the way, falsely stated that Mr. Cantor was the leader of so-called amnesty or immigration reform. He wasn't. He wasn't really much involved with it at all, but that became the narrative. And when that election took place, a lot of folks were saying, "That's why he lost." So it spooked a lot of people who the next day on the floor--because remember, we had finished our whip count, and it was done; it was real; it was with names and commitments, and folks who had committed to voting for it came to me the next day on the floor and said: "Hey, Mario, I love the bill. It makes sense, but this is just not the time. This is not the time. We just can't move forward now." So we knew that we were in deep trouble.

... Two things. You get a phone call from Gutiérrez that night.

Yes.

What does he say? What happened?

I think he realized it was a problem. And I don't remember the conversation. I remember him calling me, because that was a really bad moment. That night became almost a wake, from a celebration to a wake, and I remember him calling me in concern and like, "My gosh, is this--" I think he realized that this could be catastrophic. And I believe I told him that this was, and this is before we had talked to anybody. But look, we had been doing this a long time. We knew where people were; we knew what they were concerned about; we knew what they were concerned about and scared about and supportive of. And I believe--he might remember better--I believe that I told him, "This is over right now." And unfortunately, it was.

Your speech in the House?

That was one of the toughest moments that I had, because after that--so when that day happens, we obviously postponed that meeting that we had on Thursday at 10:00 a.m., but the conversations, and it was informal, was, "Let's see if we can--" We thought and we knew that the press would dissect this very unlikely defeat of the majority leader, and when that dissection would take place, that the truth would come out that it wasn't because of him being a leader on immigration reform. He wasn't really involved in that. It was other things, and sure enough, that started to happen, so we thought, maybe--but we were running out of time--maybe, maybe as the truth starts coming out, not just the loud people right off the elections, but when the truth starts coming out about why did he lose that election, that we would have an opportunity to take a deep breath and regroup, and we didn't have a lot of time left in session.

Then the nail in the coffin was then there was the issue of the unaccompanied minors in the border, which, by the way, I felt was a clear demonstration of just how broken our immigration system was that we needed to fix it, but again people just got, in essence, slightly spooked.

Let me go to a couple other issues. At this point, Cantor is gone. There is a revolt growing in the caucus against Boehner; the Freedom Caucus has formed. Talk a little bit about the divide in the caucus that is going on, how it affects immigration, but also just how it affects the politics of what is going on and what can get done.

My impression is Speaker Boehner never hesitated. He understood the reality that he was facing, and he tried to work through it, understanding the numbers. So I never felt that he was changing his point of view or policy. He just had to read the votes, and I think he did that relatively well.

Here is where I keep going back to. Among the folks that were highly supportive of this last effort that we had come up with ... [included] folks that were publicly against Boehner and that wanted to get rid of Boehner, so we had the support of the most aggressively whatever you want to call them--right-wing, conservative, whatever--we had the support of that group, a big part of that group. The Boehner dynamics didn't affect that. What changed was that when the election takes place where Leader Cantor loses his primary, a lot of folks--by the way, from the deep conservative ones to some of the more moderate ones, all of them--a lot of folks there said: "You know, this is not the time to do it. It's just too hot, it's too heavy, and this is not the time to do it."

But even taking away immigration, what is going on in the dynamics of the Republican Caucus at that point that leads to Boehner being--

There is a dissatisfaction by, it's not a huge group, but a group of Republicans who are dissatisfied with his leadership, who are not happy that they're not getting listened to enough, and who are then very willing to not through regular order but through a very, frankly, irregular way to try to take him out, and that creates then, obviously, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of problems in our conference. Remember, we have elections for who is going to be the Republican leaders. The Democrats have their own. That is usually when those things are decided, and then you work with your leadership and you have your internal battles, but you realize that is your leadership, and you try to work with it.

There was a small group of us who were so dissatisfied that they decided to break regular order, and they were threatening to do something that, frankly, doesn't happen much, which is to go to the floor and move to take him out, in essence. And the irony was--and these are my friends--but that some of the same folks who one of the reasons that they were really upset at Boehner was that they believed that he was not following regular order enough, then started not following regular order in order to try to get rid of the person who they thought was not following regular order. But it was an interesting time. It was an interesting time.

When Ryan comes in, there is talk. In the New York Times article, it talks about the fact that one of the things that Ryan was forced to swear off pursuing [was] immigration reform as a condition for Freedom Caucus for getting the job as speaker.

I have heard that, but I have never heard that from Speaker Ryan. I have read about that, but I have never heard that from Speaker Ryan. The Speaker Ryan that I know, the Paul Ryan that I know, is a person who is not willing to accept the status quo as OK, who is willing to take on the toughest of issues, regardless of how difficult it may be. I think he realizes that this is a tough issue, and it's an issue that we're going to have to--look, sooner or later we're going to have to confront the broken immigration system, and I think Speaker Ryan understands that. The one thing about Speaker Ryan is that he will not back out if he believes that there is a crisis, an issue that has to be solved, so I think that ultimately, if we can get the support, we'll have a speaker who is willing to confront it.

But why the turn? You had won over some of these people. Why the turn against immigration by some in the caucus?

I am not convinced that the folks, that close to 150 Republicans that were willing and wanted to move forward on this, I don't think we have lost them on this issue. You have a small group of very vocal people who are, who do not want to do this, and I understand that, but of that almost 150 Republicans, I don't think they have turned on immigration, on fixing the immigration issue, on fixing the immigration process. I think the issue was the timing, which is why some of us are already looking at when is our moment to see if we can once again get the same folks that were with us to be with us again.

So here is the hard question: There is 150. The Senate was there. There is an understanding that times have changed; the party needs to move forward. The standard-bearer for the Republican Party as we speak is Donald Trump, a Donald Trump that uses immigration reform, uses immigrants as a calling card to bring in very right-wing folks within the party.

Correct.

... Are you worried at all that your party has boxed itself in to some extent due to the stances that it has taken, that Trump takes toward this issue?

There is no secret that I have had very strong disagreements with Mr. Trump, particularly on this issue, and I have been pretty vocal about that. But ultimately, regardless of who is president, this is an issue that will not fix itself, that will not go away, and that Congress is going to have to deal with, regardless of who is the next president of the United States.

You mentioned before when we first sat down that you had a private meeting with Boehner after it all went down. Take us into that meeting a little bit and talk about what was the feeling.

... I had multiple meetings with the speaker. I had a great relationship with the speaker. But I do recall one meeting afterward when he and my chief of staff, Cesar Gonzalez, was there, and I don't recall exactly what the meeting was about, but in that meeting with him he started going point by point with how close we had gotten and what had happened. That was a difficult, difficult moment, because he in essence reminded me and those that were there of just how close we had gotten. It was a very difficult moment, and I will tell you, my chief of staff says that that was when it really hit him hard, because he realized, "My gosh, we were so close, and it didn't happen."

To me, however, my most difficult moment was the press conference. Remember, we had that group of 20 that then Nancy Pelosi and the president killed those efforts. We then revived the effort, and we had the Group of Six that then became the Group of Eight, and we revived those efforts, and then that died again. Then a couple of us revived it one more time, and that's when we came so close. That last time when we revived it, when it was dead, and I remember, legitimately so, the press saying it was dead, I thought it was dead potentially, but I wasn't willing to give up, and we revived it one more time, and not only did we revive it, we got it as close as we have come, I think, in Congress clearly in the years that I've been here to actually getting it done, and again it collapsed.

When I had to then do that press conference, that was an acknowledgement that the effort, now even that last effort, and that I saw no possible way to revive it one more time, and to acknowledge that we could not revive it one last time was a very difficult thing for me to do. I literally had a very difficult time speaking about it. It's tough for me to speak about it right now.

... It's hard to spend your life working at something and then see it implode several times in your face.

The fact was that it was the hardest time, because when it had died the first time, tough; died the second time, very difficult; but when we revived it from nowhere and got it, frankly, almost done, and then I also realized that there was no possibility of it succeeding again, at least for that Congress, I will tell you, that is probably the most difficult moment that I've had in my legislative, in the years, my years in the legislature.