Ryan an Unlikely (But Key) Player in Immigration Reform

Ryan an Unlikely (But Key) Player in Immigration Reform

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 25, 2013

Paul Ryan shared a Republican presidential ticket last fall with a candidate who once offered up “self-deportation” as the answer to the country’s immigration woes, a formulation that helped send 70 percent of Latino voters to their opponent’s corner.

Earlier this week, the Wisconsin congressman stepped out with liberal Chicago Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez -- and a Mariachi band, no less -- at events in the Windy City to promote immigration reform efforts in Congress.

The paring is an unlikely one. For Gutierrez, immigration reform is the civil rights issue of his time. The Illinois lawmaker is a member of the House’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” working on new legislation, and has been critical of President Obama’s failure to sign an immigration law during his time in office. Ryan chairs the House Budget Committee and has been focused throughout his 14-year congressional career on the nation’s finances.

Nonetheless, he has been working behind the scenes on immigration reform for several months, advising both those crafting a bill and to those skeptical of it. As Gutierrez tells it, Ryan approached the Democrat at the House gym soon after the elections and asked what he could to do to aid the effort. Ryan reminded his colleague that their shared Catholic faith does not support letting a class of people live in the shadows.

Ryan is also a student of pro-immigration libertarian Jack Kemp, who nodded to “a nation of immigrants” as he accepted the vice presidential nomination nearly 20 years ago.  In 2007, Ryan backed a House version of the John McCain/Ted Kennedy comprehensive reform bill sponsored by his friend Gutierrez and Arizona’s Jeff Flake (who is now one of the architects of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill). He opposed the 2010 DREAM Act when it came up in the House and ultimately failed. Ryan, though, has backed legislation dealing with work-verification programs and border security.

While much of the reform spotlight has fallen on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the rising Latino rising star with presidential aspirations, Ryan has the credentials and national name recognition to perhaps bring reluctant members on board in the House, where legislation figures to face a steeper climb. Speaker John Boehner wants to take care of the issue in the lower chamber, but having Ryan on board could make for a smoother ride.

Rubio, who called Ryan’s Chicago appearance “very positive,” said the two began talking about the issue months ago and continue to have conversations. “The House is pursuing a different process than ours, but I’m very encouraged by his involvement,” he told RCP. “His focus is on budget issues, but he’s expressed an interest in it and I think that’s promising.”

Still, Ryan may be able to explain and sell immigration reform in a way that Rubio can’t. Like his Senate counterpart, Ryan has been appealing to conservatives with a message of assimilation, opportunity, reward for work and penalties for those who break the law. But he also raises concerns about a nation saddled in debt.

“Paul Ryan is riding the horn of that particular dilemma: He simultaneously understands the problems of entitlements, he knows the trend lines and the trajectories,” says Mike Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which is releasing a study pushing against the Senate bill’s costs. “He also understands the value of someone coming here with nothing … and the ‘better myself/pull myself up from the bootstraps’ American Dream motivation.” Franc says Ryan can play both sides of the coin by encouraging people to come to the country legally and for the right reasons while not becoming “part of the culture of dependency.”

Ryan touched upon that theme in Chicago. “No matter what the condition of your birth, you can make yourself what you want to be. That is an incredible idea. It is that incredible idea that made us the best, most prosperous, flourishing country in the world. There is no other economic system in the world that has done more to lift people out of poverty than the American free enterprise system,” he said.

The Wisconsin Republican endorsed the Senate principles outlined earlier this year, and called the legislation unveiled last week -- which includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship, new guest-worker laws and border security measures -- a “good step in the right direction.” But the process will work differently in the House, where a piecemeal approach and a border security trigger is more likely.

Ryan emphasized the need for secure borders, enforcement of existing immigration laws, having a workable guest worker program that attracts high-tech employees and accommodates agricultural workers, all while dealing with the future flow of immigrants.

An overhaul of the broken current system can strengthen the economy, he argued.

And while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul urged the Senate to slow the reform process in light of the Boston bombings, Ryan argued that the attack highlighted the need to fix the system for national security and economic security reasons.

Ryan can certainly attract colleagues or provide them with political cover, and thus his involvement is no accident. After a House Republican gathering in Williamsburg earlier this year to map out the conference’s legislative plan, Boehner and Ryan worked to get conservatives to agree to a temporary debt ceiling increase in exchange for a budget that balanced in a decade. He has been meeting with the likes of Raul Labrador, a key legislator in the immigration reform debate who also has a history of bucking party leadership. The Idaho lawmaker said Ryan is a “good advocate” for reform and understands the need for a more viable guest worker program and border security triggers.

But can he actually convince naysayers when it comes time for a vote? “I don’t know if he convinces anybody,” Labrador said. “I don’t know that anybody supporting an issue convinces anybody else, but it just lends to a conversation so we can talk about what is necessary for us to avoid having to be here 10 years from now.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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