By Roxana Tiron, Bloomberg
Paul Ryan is under pressure to drop his support for revising U.S. immigration laws: His adversaries are running television attack ads against him and warning of a primary challenge to the Wisconsin Republican congressman.
Ryan is risking a “showdown with the Tea Party,” said Bob Dane, an opposition leader, in reference to the anti-tax movement that backs primary challenges to some incumbents.
The effort to make him switch his position isn’t working: Ryan says he is committed to passing a law to allow 11 million undocumented immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens. His conviction — dating to his work for fellow Republican Jack Kemp two decades ago — is rooted in economic policy, Ryan’s Catholic faith, and Wisconsin’s German and Irish immigrants.
His stance runs against heavy opposition to a citizenship path among fellow members of the House Republican majority. Ryan, his party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, has gained some unlikely allies. Among them are President Barack Obama’s political campaign arm, Organizing for Action; some Wisconsin Democrats, and a pro-immigration group funded by Facebook Inc. (FB) Chairman Mark Zuckerberg’s political advocacy organization.
“If we do it right, it’s going to be good for our economy; it’s going to be good for families, and we will respect the rule of law,” Ryan said in a telephone interview between meetings last week in his hometown of Janesville.
If opponents of a new law meant to kill it during the five-week congressional recess, they may not have succeeded. Anti-immigration rallies led by Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, were sparsely attended; his “Stop Amnesty Tour” event in Richmond, Virginia, drew about 50 people. Republican leaders sought to change the subject to criticism of Obama’s health-care law that enters a new phase in October.
Ryan, an eight-term congressman, isn’t deterred by the opposition. “I’ve seen it all and I am used to this kind of political activity,” he said in the interview. “It does not surprise me; it doesn’t really affect me.”
House Republicans reject a comprehensive plan passed June 27 by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Chances for enacting a law by year’s end dimmed after House leaders said they would consider a series of bills instead of one large measure.
Ryan has stood apart from his House colleagues by pressing for fixes to the system, including eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“What Congressman Ryan has done so far is really astonishing to me,” Democratic state Representative JoCasta Zamarripa of Wisconsin said in an interview. “I am very impressed with seeing him taking on the leadership role that he has in support of immigration reform.”
Yet, she said, “it doesn’t end there,” and he needs to do more.
Also backing Ryan is Americans for a Conservative Direction, a group funded by Zuckerberg’s pro-immigration organization FWD.us. It is airing television ads in Ryan’s district backing his immigration views.
On the other side, Ryan wants to “bring millions more foreign workers to take our jobs,” says a television ad by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Dane is communications director for the group, which wants to reduce immigration and ran a $200,000 campaign against Ryan.
The ad continues, “Does Congressman Ryan think Wisconsin workers aren’t good enough to get the job done?”
Ryan’s views stem from his work as an adviser to Kemp, the late New York congressman and U.S. housing secretary, at the Empower America policy group. Working for Kemp in 1994, Ryan wrote a rebuttal to backers of a California ballot initiative that sought to deny benefits to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. In Congress, Ryan backed the failed 2007 immigration proposal by Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and the late Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Ryan’s Catholic beliefs also propel him. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports an “eventual path to citizenship,” according to a fact sheet that backed welcoming “the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person,” paired with a secure border.
Taking a stand on an immigration bill is necessary if Ryan wants to run for president in 2016, said David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“This shows that he still has the presidential ambitions,” Canon said in an interview. He said the Tea Party’s rejection of the Senate plan and criticism of its Republican co-author, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, would put someone like Ryan in a difficult position.
Ryan needs to avoid becoming “the poster child for the pro-reform wing of the Republican Party,” Canon said.
Immigration supporters are pressing Ryan to do more, including pushing for House votes when Congress returns Sept. 9. Organizing for Action and Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera are holding 11 pro-immigration rallies in Wisconsin, some in Ryan’s district.
On Aug. 28, about 30 people gathered near a shopping center in Kenosha. With GMC, Buick and Cadillac auto dealerships in the background, Ines Herrera, 41, told the group in halting English that she has trouble even getting to work without a driver’s license. When reading her speech in English became too difficult she switched to Spanish.
People displayed a large cardboard mock check, payable to the state of Wisconsin for $5.95 million. That’s how much the state would gain if undocumented immigrants could get driver’s licenses and buy cars, said Dennis Hughes, an Organizing for Action coordinator. The streets also would be safer, he said.
Hughes said Ryan hadn’t engaged with activists pressing for a rewrite. “It’s been complete radio silence from Paul Ryan,” he said.
“I’ve been trying to learn about the illegal immigrants and the problems they have,” Evelyn Pizzala, 68, a Kenosha resident who retired from the U.S. Agriculture Department after 32 years, said at the rally. She said she had been touched by the plight of immigrant children brought to the U.S. by their undocumented parents.
Ryan’s district is 82.5 percent white, while 8.9 percent of residents are Hispanic, 5.2 percent black and 1.5 percent Asian, according to 2010 Census data. Manufacturers and dairy farmers in the state have backed a change in immigration laws. More than 40 percent of employees on Wisconsin dairy farms are immigrants, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study.
Ryan called the House’s incremental approach to immigration “the smarter way to go” with more “chances of success” among Republicans.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved bills dealing with interior enforcement, employment verification, agricultural and high-skilled workers. No bill to provide legal status has emerged in the House thus far.
Ryan said he backs allowing undocumented immigrants to “get right with the law to earn their way toward a legal status.” At the same time, guarantees of border and interior security have to be made, he said.
“After a person satisfies the terms of a probationary status they ought to be able to get a legal visa and ultimately be able to get in line for a green card, only at the back of the line of the people who’ve already been in line patiently waiting,” he said. Once they get a green card, “then it is five years and they can become a citizen.”
Undocumented immigrants have to make “amends” for breaking the law by paying back taxes and learning English and U.S. civics, Ryan said. Any compromise negotiated between the House and the Senate won’t look like the Senate bill, he said.
Dane said Ryan’s fiscal conservatism doesn’t mesh with giving “amnesty” to millions of “illegal aliens” who are “heavily dependent on government.”
Ryan needs to avoid the path taken by Rubio, a Republican with presidential ambitions for 2016, Dane said in an interview.
“He’s beginning to set himself up just like Rubio for a showdown with the Tea Party, with conservative voters,” Dane said. “He could take a lesson from Rubio, who seemed to be willing to bet his presidential ambitions” on an “amnesty bill.”