By Bill Glauber
Coming face-to-face with activists, immigrants and the children of undocumented immigrants, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on Friday laid out his proposals to achieve a consensus in Congress and push through long-sought reform of the nation's immigration laws.
"Immigration is a good thing for this country. It is this country," Ryan told more than 300 people who attended the town hall meeting at St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
Ryan, the Janesville Republican who was the 2012 vice presidential candidate, has been a key behind-the-scenes player on the issue in Washington.
The U.S. Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill that included a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
"A lot of people are saying, just pass the Senate bill," Ryan said. "That's not what the House is going to do.
"I think we can make it better."
"I'm not doing this for politics," Ryan later said. "I think it's the right thing to do for the country."
Ryan said in the House, where the Republicans are in the majority, 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."
Ryan said negotiations are underway to bring "these various bills to the floor of Congress."
"Tentatively, October, we're going to vote on these bills," Ryan said. "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."
Ryan also said, "We're going to vote on a bill to legalize people who are undocumented."
Under such a plan, those who are here illegally would have to wait a minimum of 15 years to gain citizenship, two years longer than the Senate version of immigration reform. But they would be eligible to receive a "probationary visa" Ryan said.
"We want to give people an ability to come out of the shadows and get themselves right with the law," he said.
Ryan was asked by an audience member for his reaction to the controversial comments made by Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa. During an interview with the conservative online site Newsmax, King derided the idea of creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children, also known as "dreamers."
King said, "For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
Ryan said, "Representative King's remarks, I disagree with, I disavow, and they're wrong."
Ryan answered around a dozen questions from the predominantly Hispanic audience. A woman provided simultaneous translation in Spanish for a small segment of the crowd.
"It is encouraging that he is really taking leadership on this issue to try to move a bill this year," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the pro-immigration group Voces de la Frontera. "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."
One young immigrant, a "dreamer," voiced frustration with Ryan over a 15-year path to citizenship. Another "dreamer," Valeria Ruiz, 17, of Racine, prodded the congressman on deportations that divide families.
Gustavo Vargas, 35, a Mexican-born laborer who lives in Racine, told Ryan of his yearning to become an American citizen and of the decision he made back in 2004 to bury his infant son in the United States.
"Listening to him, looking him in the eye, seeing his sincerity, what I get coming to me is, this is the American Dream, this is the American ideal," Ryan said.
Later, Vargas said he spoke up because he wanted to let the congressman know "how hard it is to be an immigrant and how hard it is to be a father and try to support a family."
Ryan said that he wants to fix the immigration system "once and for all, so that we don't have the same problem 10 years from now."
Ryan told reporters he understood why some people in the crowd were critical of the 15-year time period to citizenship.
"We want to make sure we're fair to the legal immigrant," he said. "We want to make sure the law does not reward people for quote, unquote, cutting in line. We want to make sure that that person who came here legally in the first place who waited patiently, that they're respected by being at the front of the line."
Ryan added, "So, yes, it may be difficult and it might take 15 years for a person to get right. But I think that's a pretty good deal given that we have all these undocumented Americans."