As the White House and lawmakers negotiate a major immigration overhaul, two political gatekeepers could open or close doors to its passage in Congress.
One is a conservative South Carolinian swept into power by the tea party movement of 2010. The other is a Silicon Valley liberal stalwart fighting for immigrants since the 1970s.
They are key congressional players at a time when the growing clout of Latino and Asian-American voters has energized reform-minded Democrats and driven Republicans to reconsider their long held hard line on immigration.
And in interviews with the Bay Area News Group, U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., spoke optimistically about bipartisan immigration reform -- illustrating a marked shift on an issue where compromise has long seemed impossible.
If lawmakers can pass an immigration bill by year's end to settle a long, divisive debate, it "will be the last time in my generation that we have to have this conversation," Gowdy said. The former federal prosecutor is the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee in the House of Representatives, which has an important role in driving legislation forward. Lofgren has long been its ranking Democrat.
"Before these last few weeks, he had a very aggressive, hard-line approach to immigration," Lofgren said, praising Gowdy for what she sees as a "helpful" and changing tone.
"Obviously, tone is not the same as legislation," she said.
Gowdy won accolades from immigration restrictionists last year when he grilled Obama administration officials for bypassing Congress to grant work permits to young illegal immigrants. Now, he speaks of mass deportation as an "absolutely noxious" government intrusion, says he hopes to debunk the myth of illegal immigrants being an economic burden and is open to resolving the debate with a "synthesis between humanity and respect for the rule of law."
And no, he said, this is not a change of heart. He sees himself as largely a blank slate whose immigration policy views are shaped by Christian compassion and years in the courtroom as a prosecutor probing for facts.
Beginning as early as next week, Gowdy plans to hold hearings to "see what consensus emerges."
He commended Lofgren, a former immigration attorney who has taught the subject at Santa Clara University, for being a "very bright, thoughtful person" whose immigration views are grounded in the law and factual analysis.
In an interview in her San Jose office, Lofgren laid out "three pillars" she says must be in the comprehensive immigration reform bill being trumpeted by President Barack Obama as well as many top Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
One is border enforcement, "so you can track and control who comes in and how," but Lofgren rejects Republican arguments that would make this the paramount cause.
"We have done a huge amount" already, Lofgren said. "If the standard is to hermetically seal" the United States, "it's not possible," she said.
She has been skeptical of E-Verify, the system that many Republicans want made mandatory for all employers to halt the flows of illegal immigrants by using a federal database to verify job eligibility. Lofgren, however, said she would reconsider her opposition if legislation addresses the economic forces and visa restrictions causing farms and other employers to rely on undocumented labor.
A second pillar, she said, is expanding access to permanent residency visas for needed workers -- from farm laborers to engineers -- by allowing them to come here legally and keep their families together. Leaders of both parties have touted visa reform.
The third pillar is the one hardest for Republicans to accept: a path to citizenship for most of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Some, however, are suggesting ways. Leading the new GOP approach is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who would offer legal status and eventual citizenship to some illegal immigrants if they pay a fine and line up for a green card through marriage, employer sponsorship or other routes of legal immigration. Gowdy said he finds Rubio's vision "provocative, interesting and appealing" after talking with him last week." More than six in 10 Americans now favor allowing illegal immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday, a significant increase over years past. A CNN poll found a similar shift.
Democrats, Lofgren said, will not accept partial legalization that makes immigrants a "permanent underclass" unable to ever achieve citizenship.
The compromise prospects are looking better than ever, Lofgren said, because of Obama's historic re-election support among Latinos and Asian-Americans. "People who do the analysis believe that there won't be another Republican president until they can mend the poor image they have with those fast-growing segments of the electorate," Lofgren said.
"Part of that is immigration. ... Until they get right on that, they can't move on to any other subject. I've talked to a lot of Republicans who realize that's true."
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
Immigration role: Newly appointed chairman of immigration subcommittee in GOP-led House of Representatives
How he got to Congress: Rode the tea party wave of 2010 to unseat Republican incumbent
Background: 16 years as state and federal prosecutor
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose
Immigration role: Ranking Democrat on immigration subcommittee and its chairwoman until 2010
How she got to Congress: Beat the favorite, a former San Jose mayor, to secure the 1994 Democratic primary
Background: Former Santa Clara County supervisor; immigration attorney and law instructor; congressional aide in 1970s to her predecessor, Rep. Don Edwards, D-San Jose
South Carolina's District 4 encompasses the upstate region of Greenville and Spartanburg, home to BMW and Michelin factories and a historic peach industry.
Ethnic breakdown: 76 percent white; 20 percent black; 3 percent Latino; 1 percent Asian
Partisan election advantage: Republican plus-15 percentage points
Dream Act-eligible immigrants: An estimated 1,800 young illegal immigrants brought to country as children
California's 19th District encompasses the Silicon Valley region from downtown San Jose through a suburban belt to Gilroy.
Ethnic breakdown: 41 percent Latino; 27 percent white; 26 percent Asian; 3 percent black
Partisan election advantage: Democrat plus-16 percentage points
Dream Act-eligible immigrants: An estimated 9,600 young illegal immigrants brought to country as children
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Cook Partisan Voting Index; Immigrant Policy Center