Paul Ryan has been an advocate for repairing the country's broken immigration system for years. Long before he joined Congress, he worked with mentor Jack Kemp to promote a sensible, compassionate policy. Now, the Republican congressman from Janesville has a chance to lead a reform bill through a sharply divided House of Representatives. We hope he can do so.
The Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill in late June that should be the model for the House. The Senate bill would create a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented residents, raise the cap on visas for highly skilled workers and create a new visa program for low-skilled workers on U.S. farms.
Unfortunately, in an effort to land conservative votes, the bill also emphasized border security at the expense of $46 billion to the federal treasury and all common sense. The bill would require 20,000 new border agents, completion of 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border and millions of dollars for technology improvements to catch people trying to cross the border illegally. If all those new border agents are hired, the United States would have more than 38,000 employed along its southern border. The entire payroll of the FBI -- agents and support staff -- numbers only about 36,000. How does that make any sense except in the mind of a nativist?
Despite those strong reservations, the Senate bill would help solve chronic problems for families and employers alike. It passed the Senate with 14 Republican votes. We support it.
But in the House, Republican tea party politics and some unfortunate posturing by Democrats have made the political calculus very different. The Senate bill simply cannot pass the House, and House Speaker John Boehner has been adamant that the House will not even consider it. Ryan and Boehner plan separate votes on the main pieces of reform.
We're skeptical. Busting up a bill often leads to defeat, and it will be harder to build coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans for a half-dozen bills as opposed to a single piece of legislation. The risk is that representatives will choose from the House a la carte menu instead of ordering prix fixe. That way, they can say they voted for "reform," even if real reform doesn't pass.
But if that's the only path left, Ryan needs to take it and try to build those coalitions to pass what can be passed. That path may be rocky in a chamber populated with firebrands such as Iowa Republican Steve King, who without a shred of evidence recently claimed that many immigrant children were drug mules.
Ryan strongly condemned King's radical attack ("Representative King's remarks, I disagree with, I disavow, and they're wrong") during a town hall meeting last week in Racine, where Ryan returned again and again to the essence of what reform should be.
"Immigration is a good thing for this country," he said. It is this country....
"We want to give people an ability to come out of the shadows and get themselves right with the law."
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the pro-immigration Voces de la Frontera, was right in her assessment of Ryan's approach. "It is encouraging that he is really taking leadership on this issue to try to move a bill this year," she told the Journal Sentinel's Bill Glauber. "I feel it's important for someone in his position to continue to articulate the economic benefits of immigration reform for everyone and the moral imperative to do this."
Ryan has been here before. In a recent column in the Weekly Standard, conservative stalwart Fred Barnes argued that Ryan is in the best position to shepherd reform through the House. He noted Ryan's long résumé on the issue: Ryan wrote a 4,000-word rejoinder to a 1994 National Review cover story attacking the pro-immigrant posture of Ryan's mentor Kemp. Ryan also allied himself with reformers the last time immigration policy was seriously discussed, in 2005-2007.
But Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, also voted against a version of the DREAM Act and was supportive of Mitt Romney's get-tough position on immigrants during the campaign. Like many Republicans, Ryan saw a lesson in the GOP loss last November.
During the Racine meeting, Ryan said the intent "is to bring about five or six bills...to fix these problems in our immigration laws one step at a time in a comprehensive way....
"We're going to vote on a border security bill, we're going to vote on an interior enforcement bill, like the workplace verification and the visa tracking. We're going to vote on a legal immigration bill for visas, for agricultural workers, for skilled workers. We're going to vote on a bill to legalize people who are undocumented." Votes on the bills could come in October, Ryan said.
If those votes actually happen -- and they should -- and if Ryan can bring along enough Republicans, he may be able to broker a deal. That's our hope. This nation needs a comprehensive solution that helps employers and immigrant families who have been waiting for years for a compassionate, sensible policy.
Ryan is right on the policy. Let's hope he's also right about the politics.