Miami’s Leon Fresco: The immigration mover and shaker you don’t know

Leon Fresco is now New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer's right-hand man on immigration
Leon Fresco is now New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer's right-hand man on immigration Abaca Press/MCT

While Sen. Marco Rubio may be among the most prominent faces of the immigration battle in Washington, there is another Cuban-American from Miami who has been almost as critical to guiding the contentious proposal through the perils of Capitol Hill.

His name is Leon Fresco.

But unlike Rubio and thousands of other Cuban Miamians, Fresco’s a Democrat.

The 1995 Miami Beach High School graduate who twice made it to the national championships in debate – The Miami Herald gave the then 17-year-old a Silver Knight award – is now New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer’s right-hand man on immigration and arguably the debate’s most critical cog whom few people know.

Fresco, now 35, led the brutal negotiating sessions, some of which lasted until 2 a.m., with staffers of the so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan Senate team. He orchestrated several of the most delicate compromises, including the final and most difficult agreement between labor and business interests, which allowed both Democrats and Republicans to claim victory.

And it was his hands on the keyboard drafting passages of the original, 844-page bill that the group ratified.

“He put in the longest of all the long hours,” said Chandler Morse, the immigration staff negotiator for Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “He was the one that everyone called.

“He was the one that the Republicans called when they were mad about how things were going,” Morse said. “And he was the one Democrats called when they were mad about how things were going. And in a two-party system, someone is always angry.”

As most often is the case in Washington, the most significant work on the deal happened behind closed doors, far from the cameras.

Senators gave their negotiators the principles to follow, a framework, compromises they could and could not accept, and then sent them off to find a solution on matters that have plagued the nation for decades.

The staffers, about 20 of them ranging in age from their late 20s to their mid-40s, had the daunting task of coming up with a new law of the land that likely would impact almost every aspect of American life, from who we let in the country to who we elect for office.

For Fresco, the charge was clear: Figure out a way. Find that sweet spot where everyone can get something they want, without conceding so much they can’t face their constituencies. Make a deal.

The group met daily from January to April in a room they dubbed “The Dome.”

Fresco set the group’s agenda. He pushed compromise, but he also established bright lines where he and other Democrats wouldn’t budge – such as refusing to raise a controversial 15,000-visa cap for foreign construction workers that builders and contractors find preposterously low. He led the daily disputes over border security provisions, business and labor demands, and establishing the criteria used to determine who among the 11 million here illegally would have the privilege of being able to apply for citizenship. He also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind when he felt he or his boss had been blindsided.

When Rubio released a statement on Easter Sunday calling talks of a deal premature after Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went on a media blitz touting an imminent agreement, a frustrated Fresco fired off an angry email to Enrique Gonzalez, Rubio’s immigration negotiator.

“Tell your boss he already paid for the caterer, he’s got to go through with the wedding now,” Fresco wrote on a cab ride home.

Gonzalez responded unapologetically: “You know Cubans are always willing to blow up a good party at any time,” Fresco recalled.

Rubio’s spokesman declined any interviews, noting an office policy against staff profiles.

It was actually two Cuban-Americans from Miami who dominated the immigration talks. Gonzalez, who also is a Miami immigration attorney, led the Republican negotiations.

Despite often butting heads, the two grew tight over shared cab rides home and late-night dinners at Johnny Rockets and Chipotle, according to Fresco and others familiar with the negotiations. They discussed law school and their legal backgrounds. Fresco went to Yale, Gonzalez to Cornell.

Gonzalez shared stories about his family, and Fresco sought out guidance on how to find the right balance between work and life. Fresco told Gonzalez about growing up in the Cuban Jewish neighborhood of North Bay Village in Miami Beach and going to school with future football star Chad Johnson.

The email crack about the caterer was classic Fresco. He was known to speak his mind, sometimes to his own detriment, but even the barbs were laced with humor.

The pointed remark was a line from the movie “A Night at the Roxbury,” a cheesy 1998 comedy starring Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan about two head-bobbing brothers who fail miserably at picking up women.

Staffers called them “Leonisms.” Fresco has a near encyclopedic knowledge of pop references. He’d sometimes break into song or quote lines from a movie – anything to boost morale, to keep talks moving.

He was also a go-between for other groups.

“My husband would joke that he would know if the phone was ringing late that it was going to be Schumer’s office,” said Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, the AFL-CIO’s lead legislative representative for immigration. “He knew Leon’s name just because he’s heard me talk about him.”

After graduating from Yale Law School, Fresco returned to Miami to work at the law firm of Holland & Knight, where he mostly took pro-bono cases. He handled several high-profile cases including an HIV-positive Colombian fighting deportation and a schizophrenic man convicted of murder suing federal court for using “chemical agents” to subdue mentally ill inmates.

Fresco joined Schumer’s staff in 2009, when Schumer was talking with Graham about bringing back up a comprehensive immigration package. The New York senator describes Fresco as “our immigration genius” and has his number memorized.

“I must dial it 10 times a day,” Schumer said.

He praised Fresco for coming up with some of the toughest legislative compromises, including breaking a deadlock between business and labor over wages for future immigrant workers.

“When there is a problem that seems intractable, you push the Leon button and out comes a solution that both sides like,” Schumer said.

But Fresco sometimes talks too much – or too loud. It’s Fresco whispering in Schumer’s ear during sensitive committee negotiations. But he speaks so loudly that rest of the group can hear him. “I say, ‘Leon, be quiet,’” Schumer said. “He’s brilliant, but he gives away the whole negotiating strategy in the first sentence.”

Citing Fresco’s message to Gonzalez, Schumer said Fresco may have been a little too pointed with his remark, but he called the message effective because he and others had felt blindsided by Rubio.

Fresco says he can relate to Rubio. He sees a lot of himself in Rubio. He grew up Republican with a “pro-Republican, pro right-wing” mindset that he maintained until law school. His father ran a family real estate business. His mother managed network programs for a cruise line and helped devise a system where passengers could get their bags transferred from the airport to their ship’s cabin. His parents remain conservative. “My father loves Rubio,” he said.

So does his mother, but she calls herself a Democrat out of respect and pride for all her son’s accomplishments.

“Before she was like, ‘You could be like Marco Rubio. Why does he get all the credit?’ like any mother,” Fresco said.

He feels that background, understanding the priorities of many Republicans, particularly Cubans, helped him work out deals with Republican staffers. But it sometimes may have rubbed those on his side of the negotiating table the wrong way.

“There were times that we had to put down bright lines in front of the Democrats,” said Morse, Flake’s staffer. “And Leon seemed to get that better than some of the other Democrats. And I think that might have put him in an awkward situation some of the time.”

One of the bright lines Fresco put down was the construction cap. Chandler said he tried every way to undermine the cap, but Fresco wouldn’t budge. The cap has infuriated members of the building and contracting industries, who see it as unrealistic considering that the industry employs nearly 6 million workers. During negotiations, a group of about 10 lobbyists confronted Fresco outside his office.

“We had a very candid conversation with him in the hallway of the Hart building,” said Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors. “He pretty much laid it out for us that this was how it was going to be and it’s not going to change.”

Fresco said the fear is that the construction unemployment rate is so high. And with the large number of newly legalized immigrants going into the field, Democrats didn’t want to create a whole new flood of construction workers. So they kept the cap low but allowed the number to be raised if the market reflected that.

Fresco’s task now is protecting the core of the legislation from amendments being introduced. Fresco is already reviewing amendments senators offer to ensure they don’t undermine the agreement.

“Right now we go to the floor and Leon will be at my side making sure, when we see a new amendment that surprises us, we’ll assess it,” Schumer said. “We want to be as accepting as we can, but Leon will be there not only explaining what it does but explaining all its ramifications and whether it’s going to hurt the core of the bill.”

And Schumer expects that later this summer, when the House of Representatives starts its debate, Fresco will again be called upon to solve the stalemates.

Related stories from McClatchy DC