Paul Ryan and his position on immigration have been alternatively described as hard-line, moderate, deeply conservative and pragmatic. And not even a full day after Ryan announced that he would run for House speaker if his colleagues were willing to meet certain big conditions, it's immigration that has emerged as a potential deal-breaker.
Ryan's earliest years in Washington were spent under the tutelage of the late Congressman Jack Kemp (R- N.Y.). Almost without question, Kemp would today be considered a moderate if not liberal Republican — especially on the immigration issue.
Kemp was outspoken about the need for immigration reform and policies that would facilitate more immigration legally. He believed more immigration would be good for the American economy and reform was the decent thing to do. Kemp famously described immigrants as a "blessing" long before similar language created trouble for former Florida governor Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential race. Kemp also opposed a controversial California measure, Proposition 187, which many believe killed the Republican Party and its future in that state.
Ryan worked closely with Kemp on some of the bills and political battles that stemmed from Kemp's ideas. Ryan even wrote Kemp's 1996 vice presidential nomination acceptance speech, echoing Kemp's immigration ideas.
Since Ryan became a member of Congress in 1999, his record has continued to evolve. He has both supported and opposed comprehensive immigration reform, expanding guest-worker programs and making it easier for people to immigrate legally. He has at times backed bills that were cheered by those who take hard-line immigration stances, but he has also supported legalization for the undocumented, and he's backed a path to citizenship for these same individuals.
Perhaps all adjectives mentioned at the start of this piece have, at times, been correct — depending on your point of view. Just consider the list of major Ryan immigration moments below.
May 2005: A McCain-Kennedy precursor
Ryan co-sponsors a comprehensive immigration reform bill negotiated by a bipartisan group. It includes an eventual path to a permanent legal status for undocumented immigrants. It never comes to either the House or Senate floors for a vote, but the bill eventually becomes the failed McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill in 2007.
June 2006: Defending the Minutemen
Ryan supports a bill that bars U.S. border patrol workers from sharing information with the Mexican government about the areas in which an armed volunteer militia, known as the Minutemen, are patrolling in the border zone. At the time, border patrol agents often shared information because of concerns that the group might engage in illegal and even deadly activities in their volunteer defense of the U.S. border.
September 2006: The border fence
Ryan votes in favor of a $7 billion, 700-mile, two-layer fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
August 2012: Running mate for 'self-deportation'
By the time Ryan becomes Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, he had already been fairly public about his immigration ideas. But like most running mates, he makes a habit of avoiding any talk of his previous positions and reshaped what he had to say about immigration in the Romney mold. The problem is that Romney, while facing a tough primary campaign, embraced a policy of "self-deportation" — i.e. making things uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants in hopes that they will leave — that would come back to haunt him. The ticket loses the Latino vote by an overwhelming and larger-than-usual margin, 71 to 27, along with the presidency.
February 2013: Time for comprehensive reform
After many party leaders express the need to support some kind of comprehensive reform, Ryan appears on NBC's "Meet the Press" and says plainly that he is in favor of immigration reform which includes a path to citizenship — or what he calls "earned legalization." Ryan says:
We don't want to give them an advantage over those who came here legally and we think there's a way to do this while still respecting the rule of law. It's clear that what the president is talking about does not do that. I have a long record of immigration reform. I'm not a Johnny-come-lately on this issue. We've always believed that there is a way of doing this while respecting the rule of law.
April 2013: Appearance with Gutierrez
Ryan appears at the Chicago City Club alongside an ardent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). Both men call for comprehensive immigration reform. Both men also push hard for a compromise bill which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, increased border security, and more rapid legal status for young adults brought to the country illegally by their parents who attended a college in the United States or served in the military. (Those last two features exist right now due to executive action taken by President Obama.)
Ultimately, the Senate passes an immigration bill in 2013 with all of the aforementioned features. But the House does not.
August 2013: A step back?
Ryan tells CBS's "Face the Nation" that he he disagrees with pro-reform Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that the GOP should be seen to be dealing with immigration in a big way because of the party's demographics problems. Graham had said Republicans can't keep winning elections with white voters alone. In response, Ryan says:
I disagree that we should approach this issue based on what's right for us politically. We should approach this issue on what we think is the right thing to do. We have been listening to the American people. So what we're going to do is take a step-by-step approach to get immigration right, not a big massive bill.
July 2014: Comprehensive is dead
Ryan announces that all hope for immigration reform is dead due to the surge in the number of unaccompanied minors and women attempting to enter the United States without legal authorization. He also repeats something many Republicans have said before: The border must first be secured.
Ryan does, however, suggest an overhaul of the country's anti-human trafficking laws so that those who arrive in this trade are not granted permission to stay.
October 2015: Seeking clarity
Right now, Paul Ryan's congressional Web site describes the country's immigration system as "broken." It also contains some buzzwords and core concerns that could rightly described as coming from across the political spectrum. Just look at the first paragraph:
First, 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. Because they lack legal status, they are outside the scope of the law. We don’t know who they are or in what activities they are involved. Second, we encourage people to break the law and punish those who follow it. Immigrants who attempt to come to this country by legal means find themselves wrapped up in endless paperwork and bureaucracy.
Ryan goes on to call for immigration reform that includes the following: Secure the border (this time there are some details about what that might involve), enforce existing immigration laws, facilitate legal immigration as needed for things such as a guest farm worker program, give undocumented immigrants a chance to "get right with the law" by undergoing criminal background checks, paying back taxes, learning English and civics, then joining the back of the citizenship applicant line.