Rep. Paul Ryan could be Mitt Romney’s olive branch to voters who want to see illegal immigrants gain legal status, with the Wisconsin Republican having repeatedly backed legalization efforts and cast himself in the mold of former President George W. Bush, who fought a battle with his own party on the issue.
But in the first few days since Mr. Ryan was announced, a split is developing among immigration reformers. Those in the business community say they are thrilled, while those who approach the issue from an immigrant-rights stance reject him as a salesman.
Mr. Ryan’s record is decidedly mixed.
As a staffer in Washington, he worked for Jack Kemp and Sen. Sam Brownback—both of whom were part of the Republicans’ pro-immigration wing, and who fought crackdown efforts from within their own party.
As a congressman, he voted for a 2002 legalization bill, praised the 2006 Senate immigration bill backed by Mr. Bush and co-sponsored a 2009 Democratic bill that would have legalized immigrant farmworkers. Each time, he was in a minority of Republicans.
But he also routinely backed the House Republicans’ enforcement bills, including voting for the Secure Fence Act and for a 2005 bill that would have turned being an illegal immigrant from a civil violation to a criminal charge. Most recently, he voted against the Dream Act to legalize young adult illegal immigrants.
But Rick Swartz, who founded the National Immigration Forum in 1982 and who worked for decades to build left-right coalitions on immigration, said Mr. Ryan does offer a chance for outreach on an issue that has bedeviled the GOP for a decade.
“Yes—but,” Mr. Swartz said. “The ‘yes’ is, intellectually, substantively, past record, knowledge of the issue, yes. The ‘but’ is, [it] depends on the constituency to which one is appealing. So for high-techs, yes. For Latinos, kind of less so. Because, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
Mr. Ryan was part of what one reporter, writing for Wired Magazine in the 1990s, dubbed “the pro-immigration mafia.” The magazine said he worked against California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, and then worked to water down the strict immigration limits in a bill Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, was working to pass in the mid-1990s.
“Although he has co-sponsored amnesties to give illegal aliens a path to citizenship, I can’t find examples of Ryan making speeches, writing op-eds or otherwise publicly advocating for the amnesty,” wrote Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, in an action alert to its members.
Mr. Beck said Mr. Ryan in recent years has “discarded most of his bad immigration habits from the Bush era.”
Still, NumbersUSA, which graded Mr. Ryan a “C” for his record, asked its members to be on the lookout for any Ryan statements that would help them delve more deeply into his record.