March 13, 2013— -- 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."
In some ways, the Virginia congressman is well-positioned for a turn toward the center. Despite a long legislative history of backing bills aimed at upping enforcement and reducing immigration, both legal and illegal, he is among the more knowledgeable members of Congress when it comes to immigration law. He worked as an immigration lawyer for 13 years before his 1993 congressional victory in Virginia's 6th district, which includes Roanoke and borders West Virginia.
Goodlatte's work in immigration law speaks to his potential range on the issue: While he opposed a 1986 immigration reform law that legalized nearly three million people, he also says he handled a few of those legalization cases in his law practice.
"I did not think it was a good idea, because I did not believe it was going to be properly enforced," he said about the 1986 law. "And it sent the wrong message to the people who were trying to come here legally."
When it comes to the big question -- whether he will support an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented -- Goodlatte won't commit one way or another. But he has said several times that some sort of legal status, but not citizenship, could be the median between citizenship and deportation. Speaking with ABC/Univision, he stressed that a legal status could eventually lead to citizenship for some immigrants, through marriage or an employment-based visa.
"There's lots of different ways that people who come here lawfully find to allow themselves to stay in the United States," he said. A special path to citizenship, Goodlatte said, "would be a concern to a lot of people."
If the chairman comes out against a bill with a path to citizenship, a shortly lived truce with immigration groups might come to an end.
"Talk is talk," said Tramonte of America's Voice. "The real test in that will be in the action, in whatever vote the conference takes. It's not enough to just stop calling immigrants criminals. They actually have to put forward a policy that resolves the issue."