Paul Ryan’s Immigration Litmus Test

The potential speaker has already promised that he won’t tackle comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Rep. Paul Ryan
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Lauren Fox
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Lauren Fox
Oct. 21, 2015, 6:31 p.m.

Paul Ry­an rose in front of his con­fer­ence and made a pledge Tues­day night. He would not push for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form this ses­sion if elec­ted speak­er.

Ry­an’s prom­ise was hardly bold, nor was it sur­pris­ing. A ma­jor­ity of the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence in the House has shown little ap­pet­ite for tack­ling  sweep­ing changes to the coun­try’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem. And, after Pres­id­ent Obama en­acted ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions to pro­tect “Dream­ers” and their par­ents from de­port­a­tion, the well of good­will has pretty been “poisoned,” as Boehner once de­clared. Ry­an said he was open to in­creas­ing bor­der se­cur­ity and in­tern­al en­force­ment, but he won’t be tack­ling any more-mod­er­ate re­forms in the 114th Con­gress.

In the near-term, the po­ten­tial for Re­pub­lic­an change on im­mig­ra­tion is nonex­ist­ent. Out on the cam­paign trail, Re­pub­lic­ans see that their base is head over heels for prom­ises com­ing from GOP pres­id­en­tial fron­trun­ner Don­ald Trump to build a bor­der wall and de­port il­leg­al im­mig­rants.  Now is not the time for im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress. Nor is a path­way to cit­izen­ship the path to vic­tory for Paul Ry­an.

Ry­an’s vow re­veals just how much he is up against as he makes his case to the House Free­dom Caucus. Every po­s­i­tion Ry­an has ever taken is un­der scru­tiny, but his dy­nam­ic past on im­mig­ra­tion re­form has taken cen­ter stage as right wing ra­dio hosts, com­ment­at­ors and law­makers pro­claim that it’s a lit­mus test for Ry­an’s fu­ture as speak­er.

“Suf­fice it to say that Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez has en­dorsed Paul Ry­an be­cause of Paul Ry­an’s open-bor­ders and am­nesty po­s­i­tion,” Rep. Mo Brooks, a mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, said about the Demo­crat­ic law­maker’s work with Ry­an on im­mig­ra­tion. “That is dis­con­cert­ing with the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­an voters.”

Trump—the fa­vor­ite of many con­ser­vat­ive voters—blas­ted Ry­an on Wed­nes­day on ABC say­ing Ry­an was “weak on im­mig­ra­tion.” And Breit­bart “un­earthed” a 2013 video this week of Ry­an speak­ing out in sup­port of im­mig­ra­tion re­form and prom­ising that he and Gu­ti­er­rez were “do­ing everything” they could to en­sure that Con­gress took ac­tion.

Ry­an has been clear. After run­ning in 2012 along­side Mitt Rom­ney, who de­clared that im­mig­rants should “self-de­port,” Ry­an has said he would sup­port a path to cit­izen­ship for some of the 11 mil­lion im­mig­rants liv­ing in the coun­try il­leg­ally. He sup­por­ted a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill in the House as far back as 2005. Yet, un­like Sen. Marco Ru­bio, who openly cam­paigned for a bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion bill, Ry­an’s role has been more meas­ured and stealthy. Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans say Ry­an helped clear the way for mem­bers to try and ne­go­ti­ate a bi­par­tis­an House bill in 2013 and they note he was gauging in­terest. Still, they say he was not the face of the ef­fort, nor was he the only prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­an or con­ser­vat­ive in­volved.

Raul Lab­rador, for ex­ample, a mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, had once been part of the group ne­go­ti­at­ing bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

“Some Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans were meet­ing to try and knock something out; even Lab­rador was in that group for awhile,” said Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, a Demo­crat from Ari­zona. “I think the con­tri­bu­tion that Boehner and Ry­an made was that they didn’t im­pede it.”

Gri­jalva says Ry­an “wasn’t writ­ing the le­gis­la­tion.”

Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers, who has sup­por­ted more-mod­er­ate im­mig­ra­tion bills in the past, also said Ry­an’s role was hardly a star­ring one.

“I feel like maybe some people are reach­ing for a reas­on to doubt his cap­ab­il­it­ies,” Ellmers says.

Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, a mem­ber of the House Free­dom Caucus who worked closely with Ry­an in 2013 on im­mig­ra­tion, says that Ry­an’s role has been over­blown and mis­char­ac­ter­ized.

“What I think is get­ting lost in a lot of the shuffle is we were only ask­ing three ques­tions. The ques­tion we took when we were ac­cused of be­ing for am­nesty was to our mem­bers: ‘Do you want to do im­mig­ra­tion now, later, or ever?’” Mul­vaney says. “ That’s it. We were not whip­ping a spe­cif­ic bill for or against. We were simply try­ing to gauge the at­mo­sphere of the con­fer­ence on tak­ing up im­mig­ra­tion go­ing in­to an elec­tion cycle. So to me, the im­mig­ra­tion thing is a red her­ring. “

Gu­ti­er­rez says Ry­an clearly un­der­stood the need to ex­pand the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s base after his bid as vice pres­id­ent. Ry­an spoke along­side Gu­ti­er­rez at the City Club of Chica­go in April 2013, just months be­fore the Sen­ate passed its im­mig­ra­tion bill.

“Did Paul Ry­an play a role in try­ing to bring about a con­sensus? He did,”  Gu­ti­er­rez said. “He is for an im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem that al­lows a path­way to cit­izen­ship for people.”

But Ry­an’s as­sur­ances that he would not push for any­thing bey­ond maybe a bor­der or in­tern­al-se­cur­ity bill in the up­com­ing months speaks to both the tim­ing con­straints of this le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion as well as keen aware­ness that im­mig­ra­tion is a li­ab­il­ity for him. For mem­bers of the Free­dom Caucus, a primary chal­lenge from the Right—not frus­tra­tion from minor­ity voters back home—is of para­mount con­cern.

“I have a whole list of is­sues, and his po­s­i­tion on am­nesty is one of them,” says Rep. Wal­ter Jones, a con­ser­vat­ive from North Car­o­lina.

Rep. Steve King, a con­ser­vat­ive from Iowa, says he be­lieves Ry­an when he prom­ises not to tackle com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form this ses­sion of Con­gress, but he still is sup­port­ing Daniel Web­ster out of fear Ry­an may try and pur­sue im­mig­ra­tion re­form down the road.

“I think it does come in­to play. It comes in­to play with the next pres­id­ent,” King says. “If the next pres­id­ent is an open-bor­ders pres­id­ent and you have an open-bor­ders speak­er, it would be about im­possible to stop an am­nesty agenda at this point.”

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