An Open Letter to Paul Ryan on DACA
Dear Mr. Speaker: You are almost certain to hold the fate of 1.8 million “Dreamers” in your hands when the Senate concludes its marathon immigration debate. I appeal to you to ask yourself: What would Jack Kemp, your hero and mentor, want you to do?
You’ll be in charge of deciding how immigration gets debated on the House floor and whether a bipartisan compromise bill can be passed that legalizes young people brought to the United States as children -- or whether they’ll be subject to deportation. If they are deported, it will be an ugly blight on America’s character.
You’ll recall: In 1994, at age 24, you were a research assistant to Jack Kemp, a man you came to like and respect. I happen to know that those feelings were mutual. “I taught that kid how to think,” Kemp liked to say of you affectionately. The former pro football star and nine-term congressman from western New York was between stints as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Bob Dole’s 1996 running mate when you worked for him.
You wrote a long memo that formed the basis of Kemp’s Wall Street Journal op-ed denouncing California Gov. Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, which would have denied all non-emergency public services, including schooling, to illegal immigrants.
That article, co-written with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, declared Prop. 187 “fatally flawed, constitutionally questionable,” while predicting that it would brand the GOP as harboring “an ugly antipathy toward all immigrants.” It would also, the authors presciently predicted, recast the party that represented optimism, confidence and opportunity under Ronald Reagan as “an isolated fortress with the drawbridge up.”
As I’m sure you must remember, the op-ed unleashed an avalanche of abuse from fellow Republicans that contributed to the steep decline in Kemp’s own prospects as a 1996 presidential candidate. In an interview in 2013 for the Kemp Foundation’s Oral History Archive, you told me Kemp had displayed “tremendous courage, fighting for the soul of [his] party.”
You said that you agreed with him that immigration “is a good thing for America,” and that “immigrants don’t come simply to consume welfare benefits.” You added: “They come in search of a better life and the American idea and upward mobility. These are all Republican values.”
Prop. 187 passed, 59 percent to 41 percent, but got tied up in court challenges and was never implemented. Yet it did, as Kemp expected, brand the GOP as irredeemably nativist. With the state’s Hispanic population steadily increasing, it turned California deep blue to this day. If the Republican Congress fails to give Dreamers legal status, the same thing is likely to occur nationally — especially if they are deported. So you have a political as well as a moral imperative to make it happen.
I realize you have a tough job navigating between the right-wing Freedom Caucus and a chaotic Trump White House — not to mention rapidly leftward-moving House Democrats -- all while trying to hold on to the GOP majority in Congress. You’re attacked by the far right as an “establishment shill” and by the left as “gutless.” Both sides are rooting for your demise even as you passed a major tax bill that echoes Kemp’s 1980s “supply-side bills” and a debt-ballooning spending bill of a sort Kemp might not have minded but, as a former House budget chairman, must have galled you.
I don’t want to make your job as speaker any more difficult than it is, but the upcoming House immigration battle is a moment of truth for you, a chance to demonstrate Jack Kemp-like courage while exercising all the legislative skill you can muster. The vast majority of your fellow House Republicans don’t agree with your stated pro-immigrant views. Only 13 of them (out of 248) are co-sponsoring a “clean DREAM” bill to give a path to citizenship, despite 87 percent public support, and even 79 percent among Republicans.
Only 25 Republicans so far are co-sponsors of a “narrow” immigration bill introduced by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) that would legalize the Dreamers and still satisfy some of President Trump’s demands for enhanced border security, although it would utilize technological solutions to accomplish the aims of the president’s famous “big, beautiful wall.” A bipartisan Senate companion bill is sponsored by Democrat Chris Coons and Republican John McCain. Suffering from brain cancer, this could be the great Arizona war hero’s last hurrah. Republicans might think about honoring him as they vote.
So far, you’ve said you’d only bring a bill to the House floor that the president supports. Trump’s “four pillars” for immigration reform include a generous offer to create a path toward citizenship for the 1.8 million Dreamers whom President Obama sought to protect under his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – the one Trump declared void as of March 5.
Jack Kemp certainly would support that pillar and perhaps making sure the Visa Lottery program that allows 50,000 persons to enter the U.S. annually based on their country of origin -- regardless of any marketable skill they might possess -- would be based on merit, not chance. Perhaps, he also would have supported shifting the basis of U.S. legal immigration policy from family unification — what Trump calls “chain migration” -- to a merit-based system, provided that relatives waiting in line (some, for more than a decade) are allowed into the United States.
But he certainly would not have supported other Trump demands: spending $25 billion for that border wall, or policing priorities that already have been rounding up thousands of illegal immigrants who have never run afoul of the law. Echoing some of the nation’s most rabid right-wing radio talk show hosts, Thomas Homan, the acting chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has warned all 11 million undocumented residents that they have committed a crime merely by being in the United States – and that they should “look over their shoulder and be worried.” He said that “no group is exempt” from possible arrest and deportation.
To fulfill your stated values on immigration, you have a lot of negotiating to do with GOP hard-liners, with Trump, and with Democrats who have denounced the Trump plan, notably party leader Nancy Pelosi.
As you navigate the shoals, you could do yourself a favor by collaborating with 40-year immigration activist Rick Swartz, 1982 founder of the National Immigration Forum, an old supporter of yours and a tireless advocate for “less is more” gradual — not comprehensive -- immigration reform. Swartz has been working with Roman Catholic bishops, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Michael Bloomberg’s New American Economy and other business lobbies, some evangelical Christian groups, members of Congress in both parties and liberal immigration activists and Latino groups — members of your staff, too — to fashion compromise legislation that he told me “will help Ryan get to 50 percent plus one” on DACA legislation.
Rick told me that by his reckoning, the best chance lies with something like the Hurd-Aguilar/McCain-Coons “Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act,” combining Dreamer legalization with border security technology. But the president called the bill a “waste of time” because it doesn’t include his “desperately needed wall” and it has been criticized by some Dreamer groups because it legalizes them but leaves their parents subject to deportation.
Swartz also thinks the USA Act might be modified to include suspension of the Visa Lottery program -- perhaps for two years -- while allowing those already approved to enter the country. He also recommends authorizing Government Accountability Office studies — that is, deferral for later action -- of other controversial items, including Trump's proposed ending of “chain migration” and restricting the Temporary Protected Status program for people fleeing natural disasters or violence in their home countries.
A major issue for you, though, is how the House debate is structured. Swartz hopes that you’ll opt for a so-called “Queen of the Hill” procedure whereby multiple substitute bills are voted on, with the measure getting the most votes adopted. It’s similar to the way the Senate’s open debate/open amendment procedure is unfolding this week on immigration and will guarantee bipartisan support.
The bottom line is whether the Dreamers are to be legalized at last, and at what price. That’s where I hope you’ll be inspired by Kemp’s example. You told me in 2013: “What I admired about him so much is, he really knew who he was and what he believed in. And he stood up, even if the pressure was hot, even when he knew it wasn’t popular because he was taking his country and his party to a better place.”
I’m hoping you’ll lead your party and the country to a better place.
Sincerely, Morton Kondracke
P.S. As Kemp’s co-biographer, I wrote your name in for president in 2016, believing you were his disciple, maybe his re-incarnation. I hope I was right.