Even as Paul D. Ryan’s path to becoming House speaker looks increasingly clear, his record as an outspoken advocate for rewriting the nation’s immigration laws may be one of the final reasons giving pause to some in his conference’s right flank.
The Wisconsin Republican has said he wants unified support from his House colleagues as a condition of accepting the job, but the conservative wing of the party — particularly members of the House Freedom Caucus — is uneasy about his work toward a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. A vote by the Freedom Caucus Wednesday night denied Ryan a formal endorsement , but 70 percent of the roughly 40-member group said they would back Ryan, who deemed it enough support to move forward with his bid for speaker.
Like many debates about this topic, the sticking point is whether to give the 11.3 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally some sort of legal status.
On his website, Ryan says he supports immigration changes to help the economy grow and “give people a chance to get right with the law,” but adds, “no amnesty should be provided” and lays out how they could apply for citizenship.
Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, said that was a major issue in his choice for speaker, and he will instead support Daniel Webster, R-Fla., in part because of Webster’s “excellent record opposing amnesty.”
“Daniel Webster is an A+ on immigration,” King told CQ Roll Call. “I don’t know what Paul’s grade is, but it may well be the opposite.”
Webster had been the first choice of the Freedom Caucus, and he’s still likely to win some support on the floor. As Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, said before the caucus vote: “It’s an ongoing discussion.”
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., another Freedom Caucus member, stopped short of saying Ryan's immigration stance would be the decisive factor in his vote for speaker.
“If Paul Ryan will make some assurances that make me feel better about his immigration stance, that makes me feel more comfortable with him being speaker of the House,” Brooks said in an interview.
In fact, in a private meeting with Freedom Caucus members Wednesday, Ryan said he wouldn’t bring up an immigration overhaul without the support of a majority of Republicans.
While best known for his work on fiscal issues, Ryan has been involved in immigration policy for decades — and has a conflicted history depending on who is judging him. It’s difficult to have an immigration stance that will appeal to everyone in the Republican ranks.
He has been called a friend of the immigration overhaul movement and was dispatched by Republican leadership to implore members of the rank and file to get on board with the 2013 effort to craft a bipartisan comprehensive overhaul. Ryan was a behind-the-scenes operator, serving as a conduit for messages between the four Republicans and four Democrats in a House working group, and between GOP negotiators and leadership.
Yet a coalition of 10 advocacy groups gave Ryan a 0 percent score in a July 2014 scorecard of immigration votes, statements and co-sponsorships. Ryan has sided with the GOP on major immigration votes over the years.
He voted to block funding to implement executive branch immigration policy of prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases in 2014. Ryan also voted against providing a path to legal status for some children of undocumented immigrants in 2010. In 2005, the lawmaker voted to impose stricter identification and asylum requirements for immigrants.
As the House struggled with reaching consensus in the last Congress, Ryan became the most prominent House lawmaker at that time to support a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill. He went on a daylong swing through Chicago with Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, the Illinois Democrat who led negotiations by that “gang of eight” in the House.
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