House immigration reform group kept their meetings secret for years

In a town famous for its inability to keep a secret, lawmakers working on a House immigration bill managed to keep their group under wraps for years. [WATCH VIDEO]

Leaders didn’t know about the group and neither did other rank-and-file members as lawmakers entered and quit the process, sometimes because of electoral defeat.

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The lawmakers took several steps to ensure they wouldn’t be found out.

Invitations to attend were issued from lawmaker to lawmaker, and the meetings were held at night in various locations around the Capitol complex.

The members avoided socializing with one another outside the meetings, which kept others from getting suspicious.

They also stuck to unwritten rules about what could be said on the other side of closed doors, both to keep people from finding out what they were doing and to keep criticism of their work to a minimum.

Despite multiple meetings, the lawmakers and their staffs managed to keep the meetings a secret until earlier this year, when word first leaked out about the group’s existence.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the group eventually revealed itself because “it was just time.”

“Several years ago, you had 25 people meeting three times a week, and no one noticed.  It was kind of interesting,” she said.

The members of the group were shocked word of their gatherings didn’t leak earlier.

“All of us were surprised by that,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of the group’s early members. “But I think it’s because we had a desire to do it.”

Now the seven remaining members of the group are in the process of finalizing their bill. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said they hope to unveil their measure this week.

The key is getting all members of the group to agree on a final version.

“There was an unwritten understanding until everything was settled and everyone was satisfied” there would be no bill, said former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), an original group member who convinced his brother to join.

Getting the seven members left to agree won’t be easy, given the diversity of opinion within the group that goes back to its origins.

The founders of the House group, which at its high point included 25 members, were Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), one of the most conservative members of the House; and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a liberal lawmaker who is a member of the Democratic leadership.

The two met while serving on the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

“Sam and I have known each other for a long time,” Becerra told The Hill. “In ’08 or so, I approached him and said ‘Sam, as different as we are on political issues, on votes, if you and I can get together and be friends, maybe you and I can get together and talk about immigration. And if you and I, who disagree on almost everything, can find a way to come up with an agreement on immigration, why couldn’t others?’”

So they talked and decided to expand their group: Johnson would bring two Republicans, and Becerra would invite two Democrats.

Most of those original members are gone. For example, both of the Democrats Becerra brought — former Reps. Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Chet Edwards (Texas) — lost reelection bids in 2010.

The group met frequently in its initial days, sometimes several times a week.  There was food — lots of it — with lawmakers taking turns footing the bill.

But the gatherings were all work and no play. Several members said they didn’t socialize together outside the meetings.

Members of the group fought one another during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

“There were people there who campaigned against one another,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who declined to name names but noted one member of the group campaigned against him in his district.

“There were times I wanted to say things, but I never did,” he admitted, noting that membership in the group required “rules of the game.”

“Nothing was politically incorrect. Everything is going to be on the table and nothing can be used against anybody,” he said. 

Lofgren, who is close to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the founding members purposely searched for diverse points of view.

“We were not an official group. We didn’t have the blessing of any leadership. We agreed to talk just among us,” Becerra said. “And unless we got a bill or thought we were getting close, we wouldn’t approach leadership to bless it.”

He said the secrecy wasn’t a problem. “The reality is that most members enjoy having real personal, candid conversations.”

The group did get close to having legislation in 2010, but nothing was ever brought to the floor.

“We had the bill almost done then — drafted, written, ready to go — but there was just no interest,” Mario Diaz-Balart said.

Pelosi, who was Speaker at the time, and President Obama were deep into trying to pass the healthcare reform law and the timing on immigration wasn’t right.

Becerra said the group went on hiatus for a while after that. But this past December, he approached Johnson about reviving their group, and they got back to work.

Now the light may be at the end of the tunnel for the group, given the increasing chance an immigration bill will move through Congress this year.

“For me, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved with,” Mario Diaz-Balart said.