House Speaker Paul D. Ryan walked a delicate line on the issue of immigration — one considerably more delicate than President-elect Donald Trump’s — during a nationally televised town hall meeting hosted by CNN on Thursday.
Confronted by an undocumented Oklahoma woman, who is protected from deportation under an Obama administration program, Ryan (R-Wis.) said he was working with Trump’s transition team to find a “good, humane solution” for the families protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and said there would be no “deportation force” coming for her family.
“Do you think that I should be deported?” the woman, Angelica Villalobos, asked Ryan with her daughter at her side.
“No,” Ryan said, before Villalobos even finished her questions. “I can see that you love your daughter, that you’re a nice person that has a great future ahead of you, and I hope your future’s here.”
He gave that assurance moments after telling the mother of a police officer killed by an illegal-immigrant drunk driver that he intended to carry out Trump’s main immigration priorities areas: “deporting criminals and securing the border.”
“Are you going to stand up for America, Speaker Ryan?” asked the mother, Arizona resident Mary Ann Mendoza, after describing the threat she saw from “sanctuary cities.” The Obama administration’s policy is to pursue the deportation of illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes, and more than a half-million have been expelled since 2013, but local authorities in some cities do not actively cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Trump is promising to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and deport millions of immigrants that he says are criminals.
“He’s telling us, ‘It’s one of the top six things I want to get done in this year’s Congress,’” Ryan said of Trump’s border plans. “We said absolutely. … We support that, agree with that, and not only that, now we’re working on how to execute that in this new Congress.” He mentioned implementation of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which has been the focus of behind-the-scenes discussions on carrying out Trump’s plans for a border wall.
Before becoming speaker, Ryan was a major proponent for a bipartisan immigration-reform deal with Democrats — one that would have beefed up border security but also given illegal immigrants, such as Villalobos, a path to legal status in the United States. Those plans generated a fierce backlash among the Republican base, who dismissed any such deal as an unfair “amnesty” for immigrants who have broken U.S. laws.
What was clear Thursday night was that although Ryan might no longer openly back a comprehensive reform deal, he would like to see the tough border measures favored by voters like Mendoza followed with a path to legal status for immigrants like Villalobos. That stands in stark contrast to Trump, who says that he plans to focus on deporting violent criminals but has not backed away from pledges to deport even law-abiding illegal immigrants.
“When people get confident in this country that our border is secured, that our laws are being enforced, then I really believe the country — all people in the country — will be in a much better position to fix these bigger, thornier problems,” Ryan told Villalobos. “But if you’re worried some deportation force is coming and knocking on your door this year, don’t worry about that.”
Ryan later returned to the notion of a deportation force: “Everybody thinks that there’s some deportation force that’s being assembled. That’s not happening; that’s not true.”
CNN host Jake Tapper noted that Trump himself has actually used the term, including in a major August policy speech that called for a “deportation task force” aimed at criminal immigrants.
“And it’s not happening,” Ryan said with an awkward laugh.
“That’s why people think it,” Tapper replied.
“And I’m here to tell you, in Congress, that’s not happening,” Ryan said.
At other points in the hour-long program, Ryan discussed Republican plans for repealing and replacing President Obama’s health-care law with a cancer patient who credits the law with saving his life. Ryan pledged to find a “better way to fix this problem” without major rate hikes. He declined to give a date for when the GOP would unveil their replacement plan, but he said it would cover individuals with preexisting conditions and allow children to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 — provisions Trump has praised.
Ryan also defended the GOP push to defund Planned Parenthood as part of a forthcoming Obamacare repeal bill, arguing that women could get care at community health centers that are eligible for federal funding and don’t perform abortions: “We don’t want to effectively commit people’s tax dollars to something they believe is morally unconscionable.”
Tapper noted that federal law already prevents taxpayer funding of abortions. Ryan said the funding is “fungible” and can indirectly support abortions — a concept that Planned Parenthood and its supporters strongly dispute.
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