WASHINGTON (AP) — A soft-spoken conservative from Virginia is emerging as a central player on immigration as the issue nears a critical juncture on Capitol Hill.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte (GOOD-lat) took over chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee this year. Last week, immigration activists were alarmed when he announced his committee will consider the immigration issue piece-by-piece, instead of starting with a single sweeping bill like the Senate is doing.

Some advocates fear this could drag the issue out interminably. But Goodlatte says he thinks it's the best way to craft a good product involving lawmakers from the ground up.

Goodlatte also sees the potential for common ground on the contentious issue of legalizing the 11 million immigrants now here illegally.