Ryan's Immigration Challenge: Succeed Where Rubio Failed

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Budget Committee chair, 2012 vice-presidential candidate, and fiscal hawk, is being criticized by some conservative groups for his efforts to pass a version of immigration reform through the House of Representatives. 

Last week, Ryan took his proposals to a town hall in a Hispanic community in his district, causing a minor buzz when it was reported that illegal immigrants had turned up.

Not that they were happy about what they heard. 

Ryan's plan is to take the Senate's "comprehensive" bill and break it up into separate proposals to force Democrats to cast yes-or-no votes on politically difficult proposals, each tougher than in the Senate version. Ryan's plan would, for example, create legal status for some illegal aliens, but would not allow them to become citizens without starting the process over.

That means, effectively, a minimum 15-year "path to citizenship"--a prospect that aroused vocal opposition at Ryan's town hall. 

The opposition from conservatives is growing even louder. Many are convinced that any immigration reform proposals to pass the House--no matter how tough--would be weakened fatally through the conference process with the Senate, and that it is best to shelve the issue until after the 2014 elections.

Ryan was initially supportive of the Senate's efforts, though critical of the substance of its proposals. He has become more voluble in his criticism of the Senate bill lately, which was passed largely because of the efforts of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a fellow fiscal hawk and Tea Party favorite who risked his conservative support by working with Democrats on the "Gang of Eight" to push the unwieldy immigration bill through a vote.

Critics, such as Roy Beck of Numbers USA, a group that is skeptical of even legal immigration, have charged that Ryan wants to create a free flow of labor to the U.S. and "just doesn't believe borders are important." While it is true that Ryan's primary argument for reform is its potential to create economic growth, he has also stressed the need for border security, noting that previous efforts in 1986 and 1996 failed to provide it.

What Ryan is doing on immigration reform is what he has done on other issues: namely, to use his policy skills to attempt to create a policy alternative that attempts to balance conservative principles with what is politically feasible. He did the same with his 2012 budget, in which he presented a plan to reform entitlements, focusing on Medicare but deferring changes to Social Security, largely for political reasons.

In addition, Ryan is doing what he had wanted to do on the 2012 campaign trail, but which Mitt Romney's team prevented him from doing--namely, taking his message to minority communities, as the late Jack Kemp, Ryan's former mentor, had done. The fact that he has met criticism from all sides on his first attempt to sell a conservative version of immigration reform to Hispanic constituents shows the risks of his strategy.

But Ryan is pressing on, hoping to succeed through policy where Rubio failed through politics. Rubio hoped having a foot in both the Tea Party and Hispanic camps would sell an immigration compromise to both. But he lost control of the legislation itself, which was written by Democratic leaders and special interests. 

Ryan is gambling that by controlling the process, he can produce a better result. So far, he still faces tough odds.


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