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Ryan takes a key role on immigration

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April 29, 2013 | comments

By Gerald F. Seib, The Wall Street Journal

It's commonly assumed that the Republican most crucial to the effort to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And indeed, Mr. Rubio—Hispanic, conservative, deeply engaged on the issue and carrying the credibility of a potential presidential candidate—is important.

But ultimately, the more important Republican in the quest for an immigration overhaul may well be Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Mr. Ryan resides on the other side of the Capitol, the House, where Republicans are in charge—and where skepticism about broad immigration changes runs higher among the GOP rank and file. Given his conservative credentials and the fact that he already has graced a Republican national ticket, he is in a prime position to affect the debate.

Most important, Mr. Ryan is speaking out for an immigration overhaul, loudly and clearly, and couches his argument in economic rather than social or political terms.

"We believe in pro-growth economics," he says in an interview. "We believe in entrepreneurialism. Well, that's immigration."

He's selling that message to fellow Republicans but also working with a Democratic partner to take it nationally. Last week, he appeared with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois to deliver a joint pitch for the immigration changes—and for immigration itself.

"We need to make sure that we have an economy that is wired for the 21st century," Mr. Ryan said at that Chicago event. "And that means we need to keep the best and the brightest here in America. That means, hardworking people who want to contribute, work hard, play by the rules, and rise. That helps everybody in this country. That is what immigration is."

On a more personal level, he also is back in his congressional district in the southeast corner of Wisconsin this week for town-hall meetings, armed with a Power Point presentation to buttress his arguments to his many working-class constituents. And he expects to encounter some of those. "It's never been an easy sell," he says.

This is hardly a new line of argument for Mr. Ryan, but rather is hard-wired in his philosophical circuits. He is a protégé of the late Jack Kemp and once worked for Kansas Gov. and former Sen. Sam Brownback, both apostles of the Ronald Reagan school of thought on immigration, which holds that the melting-pot concept is key to American exceptionalism.


He says he's confident that his dialogue with Mr. Gutierrez shows there is a path to the broad solution. Among other things, he says, they both want to secure the U.S.-Mexican border as a first step, including agreement on the kinds of ways they need to do that and on how to measure their effectiveness.

Beyond that, "we both agree that the economy in the future is going to need more workers," he says. "And what better idea than hardworking entrepreneurial immigrants, which is just a manifestation of the melting-pot idea."

The case for a new approach, he says in the interview, "starts with this: You ask people, 'Can we really round up 11 million people and deport them?' Once you acknowledge we're not going to be able to round up 11 million people and deport them, then you're on to, 'How can we fix the system?' "


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