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Can Paul Ryan sell immigration reform to conservatives?

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June 26, 2013 | comments

By Caren Bohan, Reuters

Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman and former vice-presidential candidate best known for his war on spending, is emerging as his party's leading champion of immigration reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With Senate passage of a sweeping immigration bill imminent, Ryan has been meeting with House conservatives to persuade them that reform of the immigration system, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is an economic necessity and critical to fixing the nation's fiscal problems.

Ryan, a potential 2016 presidential contender, sees himself as a "bridge builder" between immigration advocacy groups and reluctant Republicans, he said in an interview with Reuters.

He argues that the immigration system is broken and must be overhauled. "It doesn't work for national security. It doesn't work for economic security," Ryan said.


Supporters believe the 43-year-old lawmaker, who hails from a moderate district in southern Wisconsin, two hours north of Chicago, can make a difference because of his stature as a leading conservative voice and a possible White House candidate.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said the sheer amount of time Ryan has spent talking with House Republicans about budget issues gives him the credibility to court them on immigration reform.

"I would bet you a nickel that he has had more face time with each member than anyone else in the caucus," said Norquist, an influential conservative who also believes immigration reform is vital to the economy.

Republican strategist Whit Ayres calls Ryan "one of the most effective messengers the Republican party has in the House," adding that "If Paul Ryan talks, the House Republicans will listen."


Ryan said a Republican-backed amendment to the Senate bill to boost security on the U.S.-Mexico border improves the chances that the House and Senate could ultimately agree on a compromise version of the legislation.

The amendment "brings the Senate bill closer to the House's position and that gives me the belief that we have a better chance at getting this law fixed at the end," he said.

Unlike Republican Senator Marco Rubio, an architect of the Senate immigration bill and a potential rival for Ryan if both seek the presidency, Ryan is not writing legislation or participating in a congressional working group on the issue.


Ryan is not a new convert to immigration reform and he says politics are not driving his embrace of it. His work on it goes back to his days as an aide to Jack Kemp, the late congressman who saw immigration as part of a free-trade agenda.

In April, Ryan teamed up with his friend, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who is a staunch supporter of immigration reform, to tout the issue at an event in Chicago. He has also co-sponsored immigration reform bills in the past.

Like Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, Ryan talks of the work ethic of immigrants and the high proportion who start businesses. He often tells of his Irish ancestors who fled the potato famine in the 1850s and started a family farm in Wisconsin.

In the interview, he cited future budget deficits as a reason for urgency on immigration reform. With 10,000 baby boomers retiring from the workforce each day, "our economy is going to need more labor in the future," he said.

Ryan said he believes the country needs a system "designed for the economy, to bring workers in to do jobs that people won't do or to bring their high-tech intellectual capital."


And the man who has sparred for years with Democrats on budget issues believes he can play a role in getting the two parties to work together. "I think when you get Democrats to listen to Republicans and Republicans to listen to Democrats you can find the common ground," he said.

Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute said Ryan could give other Republicans political cover to support immigration reform. "Nobody is going to question the conservative credentials of Paul Ryan," he said.


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