Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a longtime advocate for immigration reform who is part of a group working on a House version of a reform bill, had a colleague join him in Chicago this week to speak on the issue. His speaking partner was Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan – the same Paul Ryan who ran for vice president under Mitt Romney, a candidate who will not be remembered as an ardent pro-immigration reform champion.
“We need it for national security reasons. We need it for the economy,” said Ryan in Chicago about the need to reform current immigration laws. “We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by not being a full citizen,” said the young conservative Congressman.
And while some Republicans have said the Boston bombings are a reason to step back and reassess whether reform could make the country less safe, Ryan took the opposing view.
“If anything, this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws,” said Ryan. “So the last thing we ought to do is make some kind of knee-jerk assessment as to how this affects some other bill in Congress,” he added.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez tells NBC Latino that Ryan “is no Johnny-come-lately to the immigration issue, and has been an ally of mine and of Jeff Flake’s on immigration reform bills in the past.” Gutierrez also cited the fact that Ryan had previously worked for pro-immigration reform Republicans like Jack Kemp and Sam Brownback.
“The big difference since November,” explains Gutierrez, “is that Republicans who support legal immigration and sensible immigration policies are coming forward to challenge the opponents of legal immigration who have been driving the issue for Republicans and boxing them into a corner,” he says. “Those who want to push out or deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families are increasingly on the margins of the Republican party, and a much more pragmatic, enforceable, and economically beneficial approach is taking root. And nobody articulates that approach better than Paul Ryan,” Gutierrez adds.
The conservative Wisconsin Republican’s vocal support for immigration comes at a crucial time, as the House readies to debate a soon-to-be unveiled immigration reform proposal by House members including Gutierrez, Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador and Florida Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, among others. Support from conservatives like Ryan can make a difference in the House, say political observers.
“Some of the resistance on the Republican side to immigration reform is because House members face a threat of a more conservative challenger in their primaries,” explains Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan publication which covers Congress. “I think Congressman Ryan’s actions could give cover to other Republican members to support reform, by being able to say Ryan supported it,” says Gonzales. ”Ryan is well-respected and it could blunt some of the criticism,” adds Gonzalez.
While the Senate is still weeks away from voting on their Gang of Eight immigration proposal, advocates as well as political observers are looking toward what may happen in the Republican-led House. One alternative, says Gonzales, is that House Speaker John Boehner does not invoke the Hastert rule (requiring that a majority of Republicans support the bill), and allows an immigration bill to go through with a small group of Republicans joining the Democrats to vote “yes.”
While Republican House members representing conservative constituencies may be feeling pressure from GOP members such as Ryan to support an immigration reform bill, it ultimately comes down to two different philosophies, says Gonzales.
“Do you represent your constituents on everything they believe, or are you voted into office and constituents entrust you with two years to make decisions you think are best for the country, and later voters decide if you did the right thing or not?” says Gonzalez.
In the meantime, Congressman Luis Gutierrez says Ryan’s support for immigration legislation matters. “He is important to other Republicans and a leader on the Hill,” Gutierrez says.