When Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) took over as chairman of a key House committee related to immigration this November, immigrant rights activists weren't exactly enthused.
America's Voice, a group that lobbies for immigration reform, wrote on its website that "it looks like Goodlatte is going to be a committed anti-immigrant extremist," pointing out that the congressman had earned an "A+" rating from the immigration-restrictionist group NumbersUSA. Among the pieces of legislation that Goodlatte had sponsored to earn the rating was a bill seeking to limit birthright citizenship, which is granted by the U.S. Constitution.
Now, months later, Goodlatte is intriguing some pro-immigration groups with his approach and tenor as chairman of the House judiciary committee. The panel oversees immigration issues, and has recently held hearings on the immigration reform push underway in Congress. Should the House operate under its regular rules, the body also has the ability to kill an immigration bill.
"Well, I'm a little bit surprised, to say the least, at some of the more recent hearings," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America's Voice.
Compared with immigration hearings under the previous chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the tone is more centrist and the panels of witnesses are more balanced, she said.
"I think it's interesting that they're having a more open discussion of the topic," Tramonte said.
The executive director of another pro-reform group, National Immigration Forum, gave the congressman more direct praise.
"I think that Chairman Goodlatte is engaging in an intellectually honest process to arrive at a position on immigration reform, but also bringing his colleagues along with him," said Ali Noorani. "Gone are the days of Steve King and Tom Tancredo throwing lightning bolts from the dais."
Goodlatte inherits the judiciary committee at a challenging time for conservative immigration hawks. Since President Barack Obama won reelection with 71 percent of the Latino vote in November, Republican leaders been more receptive to passing immigration reform to help bridge the divide to the Latino electorate. Prominent GOP senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio and Arizona's John McCain, are working on an immigration reform bill with Democrats, and are committed to what would have been anathema a few years ago: a path to citizenship for the many of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
House Republicans have been markedly more reserved in embracing immigration reform, but Goodlatte's work as chairman shows an openness that didn't exist a few years ago.
"I have always talked about the immigration issue in the context of, 'We're a nation of immigrants,'" Goodlatte told ABC/Univision in an interview. "There's not a person that I speak to that can't go back a few generations or several generations and find someone in their family who came here lawfully to better their lives for themselves and their family. And yet we're also a nation of laws.
"That's the challenge that we face right now," Goodlatte added. "Finding the way to promote both of those ideals."