In the past month, Rep. Paul Ryan, normally so focused on fiscal matters, has shifted his attention to immigration. He isn’t pitching reform as a humanitarian or budget-cutting move, though other advocates say it would be both. Instead, the House Budget Committee chairman makes an economic argument. If Republicans want to grow the economy, what better way, he asks, than to bring 11 million new workers into the country under a more structured system to perform high-skilled jobs, plug labor shortages, and stay off welfare rolls? Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.
NJ What’s your economic case for immigration reform?
RYAN Immigrants bring talent and hard work. They started a quarter of new businesses in 2011 alone. Immigrant-owned small businesses employ about 4.7 million people. We are educating people here and not letting them stay when they could actually contribute and create businesses; instead, they go overseas and end up competing against us. We’re going to have labor shortages when the baby boomers are fully retired.
NJ But what’s the case for low-skilled workers?
RYAN [They] bring labor to our economy so jobs can get done. The dairy farmers in western Wisconsin are having a hard time finding anyone to help them produce their products, which are mostly cheese. If they can’t find workers, then they can’t produce, and we’ll end up importing. The flip side of the argument is: Just raise wages enough to attract people. But you raise wages too much in certain industries, then you’ll get rid of those industries, and we’ll just have to import.
NJ Should high- and low-skilled workers be treated the same?
RYAN They should have different visa categories that should fluctuate with the needs of the economy. That’s something we’re going to negotiate here. Most other countries have a visa system that is wired to feed their economy. We really don’t have that. Most of our visas are for relatives, not for workers. We should reorient our immigration system so that it works for workers and less for relatives, like, say, in Canada or Switzerland or Australia.
NJ Your former mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp, opposed California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing the state’s social services. Do reform opponents still worry about that?
RYAN Boy, that was a while ago. There has been, during our history, resistance to various waves of immigration. That’s a natural phenomenon. With respect to the California system, there were people who were upset about welfare benefits. That’s an indictment of the welfare state in and of itself. If we get immigration reform right, it is also welfare reform. Immigrants won’t be able to consume welfare benefits for a decade, which means we can guarantee that they are producing in the economy and adding to the labor force. That’s a step in the right direction with reforming the welfare system, so I think it’s a win-win.
NJ Does immigration reform touch on the bigger debate over entitlements?
RYAN We want to go toward an immigration system where we’re bringing people into the country to contribute and to pay taxes, start businesses, and work. That is good for economic growth and for bringing an alternative to welfare.
NJ How should House Republicans handle undocumented immigrants?
RYAN You need to be fair to the legal immigrants who did everything right, and honor them by making sure they are in the front of the line and that [undocumented] people are not given any special pathway ahead of them. That’s just fairness. You want to make sure that, for those who did not follow the rules, there are consequences to be paid. Those are guiding principles. The way we’re looking at it is, probationary visas will go to undocumented immigrants, who will be able to stay and work so long as they honor the terms of their probation, so long as the border and the interior enforcement is actually implemented.
NJ Where are the areas for compromise within your caucus?
RYAN A lot of members know we need immigration for our economy, especially the agricultural ones. I also get the border-security members. We don’t trust the Obama administration with discretion on enforcing the border, or interior enforcement. We know we need to get that legislation right. Most Republicans agree that legal immigration, properly structured, is good for the economy and good for the country. So then the consensus is how you deal with the undocumented population, and that’s what we’re still trying to figure out. Then [once we’ve passed a bill], I see energy policy, debt reduction, and tax reform as the real bread and butter of economic growth.
NJ With the fall’s fiscal battles, is the House running out of time?
RYAN We need to do this early in the fall. I much prefer to get this done and out of the way early, because people like me are going to have to go focus on the debt-limit issues.