This week, there was a new development in the House: Paul Ryan may be the key to passing comprehensive immigration reform.
But that should hardly come as a surprise.
Long before he was a vice-presidential nominee, Ryan was an adviser to former New York congressman Jack Kemp at Empower America, a conservative think tank. It was there, in his early twenties, that Ryan began to share Kemp’s politics.
Beyond fiscal issues, that meant supporting pro-immigration policies, such as an expanded guest-worker program.
Kemp often spoke passionately about how immigration was necessary for economic growth and for the Republican party to prosper. He also tangled with critics and, in a 1994 memorandum, warned against a “nativist, anti-immigration climate.”
“We are a nation of immigrants,” Kemp said in 1996, during his vice-presidential acceptance speech. “We must close the backdoor of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration.”
Ryan was Kemp’s speechwriter during that campaign, and if Ryan’s visit to Chicago on Monday afternoon is any indication, he continues to share Kemp’s view on the subject.
He even echoed Kemp’s approach.
There was nothing Kemp loved more than mingling in a crowd of working-class voters in a big city, and Ryan did just that. He stopped by the Erie Neighborhood House, an organization that helps the poor and immigrant families in the Windy City.
The event was quite a change of pace for Ryan. After spending a year being associated with Mitt Romney, who famously asked illegal immigrants to self-deport, Ryan was warmly greeted by mariachi music and a blessing from pro-reform religious leaders.
Later Monday, Ryan spoke at a luncheon at the City Club of Chicago, and talked about why the American dream resonates with those beyond our borders.
“If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead — that is what the American idea is,” Ryan said. “No matter what the condition of your birth, you can make yourself what you want to be. That is an incredible idea.”
Kemp’s friends say Ryan is clearly reviving his mentor’s message, even though Ryan didn’t directly refer to his old boss in his remarks.
“Oh, I heard the Kemp influence,” says Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and a cofounder of Empower America. “That’s Jack’s broad vision, that the GOP is a natural home for blacks, immigrants — anyone who’s aspirational.”
In an interview last week with the Catholic television network EWTN, Ryan recalled his history at Kemp’s side and how they worked together to fight Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative that prevented non-citizens from using the state’s social services.
“I actually campaigned with Jack Kemp against a thing called Prop 187,” Ryan told host Raymond Arroyo. He said they both worried that the proposal would burn Republicans within the immigrant community, and “make it so that Latino voters would not hear the other messages of empowerment.”
In August 1996, political reporter John Heilemann wrote a piece for Wired magazine that spotlighted Ryan’s work during that period, when he floated between Kemp’s circle and the office of Kansas senator Sam Brownback.
Ryan reportedly was behind a “deeply devastating” letter that circulated in the House, asking Republicans to oppose Texas congressman Lamar Smith’s bill to limit legal immigration. At the time, Ryan was a “protégé” of strategist Cesar Conda, Heilemann writes, and Ryan’s “ties to the pro-immigration mafia ran deep.”
Seventeen years later, Conda is Florida senator Marco Rubio’s chief of staff.
Later, as a member of Congress, Ryan supported President George W. Bush’s immigration plans and backed bills to give temporary legal status to agricultural workers. In 2010, he opposed a House version of the DREAM Act, but that was a rare instance where he broke from his usual pattern.
Politically, Ryan’s words in Chicago have consequence. In Rubio, reform advocates have had a Republican champion in the Senate. But in the House, they’ve struggled to find a leading conservative willing to step up.
Ryan could be that figure. He may not be ready to officially endorse the Gang of Eight’s legislation, but in his speech, he praised the group’s efforts and defended its bill on several fronts.
On the question of a “path to legalization,” which has drawn criticism from conservatives, Ryan was supportive. “We have to offer people a path to earned legalization,” he said. “We have to invite people to come out of the shadows.”
Ryan then pushed back against Republican critics, such as Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who have argued that the bill would be a burden to taxpayers. “Immigration reform will benefit America’s economy,” Ryan said. He predicted that reform would lead to job growth and urged conservatives to see it as more than a price tag.
Earlier in the day, when asked about how the Boston bombings could affect the debate, Ryan was undeterred. “If anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration system,” he said. “National-security reasons, economic-security reasons — for all those reasons, we need to fix our broken immigration system.”
Ryan’s comments in Chicago were closely monitored by House Republicans, and especially by the leadership, which has been hesitant to embrace the Senate’s legislation. They’re worried about the bill’s being tagged as “amnesty” by the grassroots and aren’t looking to rush it to the floor.
Ryan’s Kemp-like speech could alter their calculus.
As a conservative favorite who started his career as Kemp’s foot soldier, Ryan gives cover to Republicans who are privately supportive of reform but nervous about backing anything that includes a path to legalization for millions.
Ryan, an ally to Speaker John Boehner, will likely play an important behind-the-scenes role, too.
Boehner has been mostly quiet on how he’d like to proceed, but he sounded quite similar to Ryan in a Monday interview with Fox News. “Primarily, I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who’s here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have,” he said.
According to GOP insiders, Ryan has been huddling with Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, a member of the House’s working group on immigration. They’ve gone over Labrador’s concerns, and discussed how they can make the House version of the Senate’s bill more palatable to their colleagues, perhaps by splitting it into parts.
And on Monday in Chicago, Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Democrat and another member of the House’s bipartisan working group, was at Ryan’s side. Their relationship, which is both personal and professional, goes back years.
In an interview with MSNBC in December, Gutierrez said that he approached Ryan shortly after the election and was encouraged by his interest in building consensus. Ryan, he confided, told him that he wanted to make immigration reform one of his top priorities.
The House’s working group, which has eight members, is hoping to release its own bill in the coming weeks. Ryan isn’t part of that group, and his confidants stress that he’s not trying to elbow his way into those negotiations. But in the meantime, he will cheer them on and keep tabs on their progress.
“Everyone is talking about Rubio, and Rubio is crucial. But Ryan could be the person who makes this all happen,” says a senior GOP aide. “He has trust from both sides, which is so rare, and House Republicans listen to him.”
Other staffers say the same. As a member of the House since 1999, Ryan is seen as someone who can reassure conservatives that “regular order” will be followed, but that doesn’t mean the bill should languish in the judiciary committee for months.
“I don’t worry about moving too quickly, because this has to be a very methodical process to begin with,” Ryan told Breitbart News on Tuesday. “You just have to give these things a normal time to progress at a good pace.”
This is a new role for Ryan — being the conduit between conservative backbenchers, GOP leaders, and Democrats. It’s also outside of his budgetary wheelhouse. With a potential presidential run on the horizon, it’s a political risk.
But it’s something that the Wisconsin Republican appears ready to take on. He told me last week that he returned to the House because he wanted to solve difficult problems, and not just play politics.
With immigration reform, Ryan is certainly tackling a tough issue. But for those political observers who have been following him since he was a lanky twentysomething, it’s a continuation of what Ryan has done his whole career — follow in Kemp’s footsteps.
“We need people to come and do work in this country so we can keep this country’s promise alive,” Ryan said at Monday’s luncheon. “We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people, where they cannot reach their American dream by being a full citizen.”
Kemp couldn’t have said it better himself.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.