By Mike Lillis - 08/16/12 10:00 AM EDT
Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) shifting position on immigration over the years has left advocates on both sides of the thorny issue uneasy about his possible ascension to the White House.
Mitt Romney's newly named running mate was groomed by pro-immigration Republicans and has a long history of backing bills granting some illegal immigrants legal status — proposals blasted by conservative hard-liners as granting "amnesty" to "law-breakers." But Ryan also has a record of supporting tougher enforcement measures, and recently vowed to oppose any "amnesty" proposals — a rightward shift that has immigrant-rights groups up in arms.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which advocates for tougher immigration laws, said this week that Ryan's overall record on immigration-related bills "is a rogue's list of pro-amnesty [positions]."
"If you want somebody who's pro-amnesty and pro-immigration, he's in the top 10 percent of Republicans," Beck said in a phone interview Tuesday, noting Ryan's past support for George W. Bush's immigration overhaul, measures to legalize illegal-immigrant farm workers and others allowing illegal immigrant students to receive in-state tuition benefits.
Beck was quick to highlight Ryan's 2010 vote against the DREAM Act, as well as Ryan's website message vowing "not [to] support amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States."
"As bad as he's been in the past, he's been improving," Beck said.
Still, immigration hard-liners are conceding that their optimism surrounding Ryan's immigration position rests largely in his low profile on the issue.
"We have reason to hope that he has no passion for the bad immigration actions he has taken in the past," Beck wrote over the weekend, "and would not be committed to advocating for them if elected vice president this fall."
Immigrant-rights advocates, meanwhile, have a decidedly different take. They say Ryan's opposition to the DREAM Act — combined with his support for a 2005 bill that would have turned illegal immigrants from civil offenders to felons — is ample evidence that the Wisconsin Republican has abandoned the more lenient approach to illegal immigrants that marked his earlier years in Washington.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant-rights group, said this week that Ryan has "lurched to the right the way most of his party has."
By choosing Ryan as his running mate — and not someone like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) — Romney has all but conceded the Hispanic vote to President Obama and the Democrats, Sharry added.
"He's picked a white guy from the Midwest and given up on the Hispanic vote in the Southwest," Sharry said by phone Wednesday. "It further cements the image of Republicans as a bunch of white guys who don't care much about brown people."
Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, delivered a similar charge.
"A Romney-Ryan ticket — they're no amigos to Latinos," Kelley said Tuesday in a phone interview. "If there was any shadow of a doubt that a Romney administration would be enforcement-minded, that unfortunately has been erased."
Neither Romney's nor Ryan's office responded to requests for comment for this story.
Through his early political career, Ryan was mentored by Republicans with decidedly pro-immigration positions. As a young man in Washington in the mid-1990s, Ryan worked for Empower America, a conservative think tank headed by the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former Education Secretary William Bennett. While Ryan was onboard, the group famously — critics say infamously — opposed a 1994 California resolution that would have gutted public assistance for illegal immigrants.
"I was told that Ryan was one of the key drafters of that statement," Sharry said this week of Empower America's position paper on the resolution. "Was he a true believer? I don't know."
Ryan later worked as an aide to former-Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), another Republican who bucked his party in fights to ease restrictions on illegal immigrants.
Jimmy Kemp, Jack's son, said this week that Ryan's background with those high-profile Republican reformers likely guided his early positions on immigration.
"He watched them take on controversial issues that went straight [against] the party line," Kemp, who now heads the Jack Kemp Foundation, said Wednesday by phone. "Paul learned from my father how to disagree without making personal enemies. That's a lost art."
Former Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), an original supporter of the DREAM Act and a sponsor of several of the pro-immigrant bills Ryan supported in the 2000s, echoed Kemp's message.
"Paul comes from that very pragmatic, very thoughtful Jack Kemp mode," Cannon said Wednesday by phone.
Cannon conceded that Ryan's new and blanket opposition to "amnesty" bills marks a shift — "clearly, it's a change in emphasis" — and he characterized the GOP's opposition to the DREAM Act as "just plain stupid."
But Cannon also argued that both Ryan and Romney are more interested in solving the nation's immigration problems than aligning with Republican hard-liners who don't want to stop short of deporting every illegal immigrant in the country.
"The people making really harsh demands are just being ridiculous," Cannon said. "You cannot [deport everyone] without having a police state.
"These [GOP hardliners] are people who ostensibly believe in less government," he added. "How much government would it take to round up almost 20 million people?"
The DREAM Act passed the House in late 2010, when Democrats controlled the chamber, but was killed by a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
In response, Obama this year launched a temporary program to forgo deportations for qualified high-achievers brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 — roughly the same population targeted by the DREAM Act. Sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the program is estimated to benefit more than 1 million illegal immigrants. The agency began accepting applications Wednesday.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and among the most consistent opponents of "amnesty" proposals, has been among the most vocal critics of Obama's unilateral move, saying it's an unconstitutional power grab that ignores Congress's wishes.
Smith, however, declined to comment on Ryan's immigration record, instead issuing a brief statement praising his fiscal conservatism.
"There is no one better to speak to the American people about how to fix the economy, create jobs and reduce the deficit,” Smith said this week in an email.
Another sharp critic of Obama's "deferred action" program is Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But like Smith, Grassley is being careful not to drive a wedge between Republicans on immigration.
"No matter what concerns people may have about Congressman Ryan's immigration votes, they pale in comparison to the Obama administration's immigration policies, where it's rule by fiat," Grassley said Wednesday in an email. "This administration has consistently thumbed its nose at the rule of law and put politics above responsible policy."
Obama's unilateral move propelled immigration into the spotlight of a presidential election contest in which the Latino vote could be the deciding factor in a number of key battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
The DHS program also forced Romney to unveil an immigration reform plan of his own. That proposal focuses heavily on enforcement measures, like increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and completing the fence along the Mexican border — all ideas sure to win favor from conservatives — but it also offers green cards to some immigrant students and opens a pathway to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who join the military.
Democrats and immigrant-rights advocates contend the plan is sure to alienate Latino voters. But supporters say Romney's decision to remain tough on enforcement is smart in that it won't alienate his conservative base. Beck, for one, said many Latino voters are looking at issues outside the realm of immigration policy.
"If you want to get Latino voters, you're not going to get them based on immigration things," he said. "You're going to get them on economic issues."
He also had a warning for Republicans thinking of going soft on enforcement.
"The Republican base," he said, "simply won't put up with any more George Bushes."