This week, there was a new development in the House: Paul Ryan may be the key to passing comprehensive immigration reform.
But that should hardly come as a surprise.
Long before he was a vice-presidential nominee, Ryan was an adviser to former New York congressman Jack Kemp at Empower America, a conservative think tank. It was there, in his early twenties, that Ryan began to share Kemp’s politics.
Beyond fiscal issues, that meant supporting pro-immigration policies, such as an expanded guest-worker program.
Kemp often spoke passionately about how immigration was necessary for economic growth and for the Republican party to prosper. He also tangled with critics and, in a 1994 memorandum, warned against a “nativist, anti-immigration climate.”
“We are a nation of immigrants,” Kemp said in 1996, during his vice-presidential acceptance speech. “We must close the backdoor of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration.”
Ryan was Kemp’s speechwriter during that campaign, and if Ryan’s visit to Chicago on Monday afternoon is any indication, he continues to share Kemp’s view on the subject.
He even echoed Kemp’s approach.
There was nothing Kemp loved more than mingling in a crowd of working-class voters in a big city, and Ryan did just that. He stopped by the Erie Neighborhood House, an organization that helps the poor and immigrant families in the Windy City.
The event was quite a change of pace for Ryan. After spending a year being associated with Mitt Romney, who famously asked illegal immigrants to self-deport, Ryan was warmly greeted by mariachi music and a blessing from pro-reform religious leaders.
Later Monday, Ryan spoke at a luncheon at the City Club of Chicago, and talked about why the American dream resonates with those beyond our borders.
“If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead — that is what the American idea is,” Ryan said. “No matter what the condition of your birth, you can make yourself what you want to be. That is an incredible idea.”
Kemp’s friends say Ryan is clearly reviving his mentor’s message, even though Ryan didn’t directly refer to his old boss in his remarks.
“Oh, I heard the Kemp influence,” says Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and a cofounder of Empower America. “That’s Jack’s broad vision, that the GOP is a natural home for blacks, immigrants — anyone who’s aspirational.”
In an interview last week with the Catholic television network EWTN, Ryan recalled his history at Kemp’s side and how they worked together to fight Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative that prevented non-citizens from using the state’s social services.
“I actually campaigned with Jack Kemp against a thing called Prop 187,” Ryan told host Raymond Arroyo. He said they both worried that the proposal would burn Republicans within the immigrant community, and “make it so that Latino voters would not hear the other messages of empowerment.”
In August 1996, political reporter John Heilemann wrote a piece for Wired magazine that spotlighted Ryan’s work during that period, when he floated between Kemp’s circle and the office of Kansas senator Sam Brownback.
Ryan reportedly was behind a “deeply devastating” letter that circulated in the House, asking Republicans to oppose Texas congressman Lamar Smith’s bill to limit legal immigration. At the time, Ryan was a “protégé” of strategist Cesar Conda, Heilemann writes, and Ryan’s “ties to the pro-immigration mafia ran deep.”
Seventeen years later, Conda is Florida senator Marco Rubio’s chief of staff.