Paul Ryan has been pro-immigration since he worked for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett two decades ago at Empower America, a now-defunct conservative think tank. When National Review ran a cover story, “Why Kemp and Bennett Are Wrong on Immigration” in 1994, Ryan wrote a 4,000-word rebuttal. It defended their opposition to Proposition 187, which denied any social services for illegal immigrants in California.
During the congressional battle over immigration from 2005 to 2007, Ryan was allied with reformers. He supported the House version of the McCain-Kennedy legislation in the Senate. It would have created a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But the bill died before a vote in either chamber.
This spring, in a series of town hall meetings in his southern Wisconsin congressional district, Ryan endorsed a 13-year path to citizenship for illegals. And when he and Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) appeared together in April at the City Club of Chicago, they agreed on the need for bipartisanship on immigration reform.
So Ryan is hardly a newcomer to the immigration issue. He favored what he calls “earned” citizenship long before it became the cure preferred by many Republicans for their inability to win the votes of Hispanics.
Now that Ryan is a dealmaker in the House on immigration legislation, his background as a reformer is enormously important. Like the Senate, the House has its own bipartisan “Gang of Eight” with a bill to allow the 11 million illegal immigrants here to pursue citizenship. When Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) quit the group two weeks ago, Ryan was reported to have replaced him. He didn't, but he confers with its members frequently.
He didn’t have to volunteer for a high-profile role in the immigration debate, but he did so with the backing of House speaker John Boehner. Ryan, with his knack for getting along with Democrats, is the right person to help broker a deal. That he is a good-faith backer of immigration, for benevolent rather than partisan reasons, is not in dispute.
This can’t be said about President Obama and many Democratic proponents of immigration reform. Obama, for example, voted as a senator for several “poison pills” in the immigration debate in 2007. They would have kept GOP senators from voting for the McCain-Kennedy bill, thus killing it, if it had ever come to a vote.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised to introduce an immigration bill in his first year in office. As it turned out, he didn’t in his entire first four years, even while Democrats had lopsided majorities in the Senate and House in 2009 and 2010 and were all but certain to pass a comprehensive bill with a path to citizenship.
Obama blamed Republicans. At a presidential town hall hosted by Univision in 2012, he claimed the White House “could not get a single Republican, including the 20 who had previously voted for comprehensive immigration reform, to step up and say, we will work with you to make this happen.”
Not a single Republican? Obama had to know better. He could have contacted Ryan or McCain or the Gang of Eight in the House (four Democrats, four Republicans). The gang had agreed on a comprehensive bill in 2009. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who heads the group, described it as a “consensus product that would have worked and still could work.” Was the White House oblivious to its existence? Not likely.
Again this year, the House group agreed on a bill. Then last month Rep. Xavier Becerra, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus and a member of the gang, objected to the denial of government benefits for newly legalized immigrants. He said they should be eligible for medical benefits under Obamacare.
The compromise legislation was altered with new language from Democrats. But health benefits were not added. There’s a simple reason they weren’t: Such benefits are a poison pill for Republicans. Nonetheless, Becerra renewed his complaint and proposed once more that immigrants get health benefits. This is why Labrador quit the Gang of Eight. He concluded Democrats would never compromise.
Who’s behind the Becerra demand? “I suspect Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want an immigration bill to pass,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Gang of Eight member and a leader among Republican supporters of immigration reform. He says he “fears” Pelosi wants an issue to use against Republicans in the midterm congressional elections in 2014. They’d be accused of blocking immigration reform and being anti-Hispanic.
And if Democrats capture the House, guess who’s likely to become speaker? Pelosi.
This is just part of the trouble Ryan and his pro-reform allies face. Republicans are divided, with a hard core against any form of amnesty. Democrats are divided too. Some, like Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Gutierrez, are committed to a bipartisan bill. Obama is suspected, at least by Republicans, of preferring an issue for next year’s election. And still other Democrats—Senate majority leader Harry Reid, for instance—want a bill that compromises as little as possible with Republicans.
Ryan jumped into the immigration morass knowing that negotiating with Democrats can be bruising to one’s reputation. “He’s fearless in tackling difficult issues,” says Diaz-Balart. “And he’s not concerned about political risk.” Those traits, when combined, often produce leadership.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.