Later, as a member of Congress, Ryan supported President George W. Bush’s immigration plans and backed bills to give temporary legal status to agricultural workers. In 2010, he opposed a House version of the DREAM Act, but that was a rare instance where he broke from his usual pattern.
Politically, Ryan’s words in Chicago have consequence. In Rubio, reform advocates have had a Republican champion in the Senate. But in the House, they’ve struggled to find a leading conservative willing to step up.
Ryan could be that figure. He may not be ready to officially endorse the Gang of Eight’s legislation, but in his speech, he praised the group’s efforts and defended its bill on several fronts.
On the question of a “path to legalization,” which has drawn criticism from conservatives, Ryan was supportive. “We have to offer people a path to earned legalization,” he said. “We have to invite people to come out of the shadows.”
Ryan then pushed back against Republican critics, such as Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who have argued that the bill would be a burden to taxpayers. “Immigration reform will benefit America’s economy,” Ryan said. He predicted that reform would lead to job growth and urged conservatives to see it as more than a price tag.
Earlier in the day, when asked about how the Boston bombings could affect the debate, Ryan was undeterred. “If anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration system,” he said. “National-security reasons, economic-security reasons — for all those reasons, we need to fix our broken immigration system.”
Ryan’s comments in Chicago were closely monitored by House Republicans, and especially by the leadership, which has been hesitant to embrace the Senate’s legislation. They’re worried about the bill’s being tagged as “amnesty” by the grassroots and aren’t looking to rush it to the floor.
Ryan’s Kemp-like speech could alter their calculus.
As a conservative favorite who started his career as Kemp’s foot soldier, Ryan gives cover to Republicans who are privately supportive of reform but nervous about backing anything that includes a path to legalization for millions.
Ryan, an ally to Speaker John Boehner, will likely play an important behind-the-scenes role, too.
Boehner has been mostly quiet on how he’d like to proceed, but he sounded quite similar to Ryan in a Monday interview with Fox News. “Primarily, I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who’s here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have,” he said.
According to GOP insiders, Ryan has been huddling with Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, a member of the House’s working group on immigration. They’ve gone over Labrador’s concerns, and discussed how they can make the House version of the Senate’s bill more palatable to their colleagues, perhaps by splitting it into parts.
And on Monday in Chicago, Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Democrat and another member of the House’s bipartisan working group, was at Ryan’s side. Their relationship, which is both personal and professional, goes back years.
In an interview with MSNBC in December, Gutierrez said that he approached Ryan shortly after the election and was encouraged by his interest in building consensus. Ryan, he confided, told him that he wanted to make immigration reform one of his top priorities.