Paul Ryan Backs Immigration Reform: Here's Why

PHOTO:  Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds a copy of President Barack Obamas fiscal 2014 budget proposal book.J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds a copy of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget proposal book.

Paul Ryan this week jumped in headlong to the immigration debate, a lightning rod issue for many of his Republican colleagues in the House.

The Wisconsin Republican made a joint appearance on Monday with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutiérrez in the latter's home city of Chicago, where he embraced comprehensive immigration reform. Rather than use the Boston attacks to call for delaying the issue, he said they should serve as a wake-up call to get a bill passed.

"We have a broken immigration system and, if anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration system for lots of reasons," Ryan said, according to Politico. "National security reasons, economic security reasons. For all those reasons we need to fix our broken immigration system."

Ryan's support for comprehensive immigration reform that contains a path to legalization could prove crucial for the GOP's effort in Congress. He's one of the young faces of the GOP and as budget chairman, he's seen as a leader among House Republicans. Ryan, 43, also established a national presence as Mitt Romney's running mate last year.

In addition to his public support Ryan has reportedly been working behind the scenes to help foster agreement between Republicans and Democrats trying to craft a comprehensive immigration bill in the House.

While Ryan's activity might seem out of step with his usual focus on budgetary issues, it's not new, according to Gutiérrez. The Illinois Democrat said that 10 years ago, Ryan played a role in a previous effort to draft an immigration bill in the House.

"He is not new to this issue, or to this debate, or to fostering comprehensive immigration reform," Gutiérrez told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month. "But I believe, like many in the Republican Party, his voice was shut out."

During his whirlwind tour of Chicago, Ryan spoke about the economic benefits that immigration reform could bring to the U.S. But don't overlook another reason that he might be speaking out about immigration: the changing face of his congressional district.

Ryan has represented Wisconsin's 1st congressional district since 1999. During that span, he has seen the Latino population jump from 6.3 percent to 9 percent, according to Census data. That is a 43-percent increase over the course of a decade. Ryan's district now has the second-largest Latino population in the state.

Latinos might not be large enough in number to sway a congressional race in Ryan's district, but it's been enough for residents to take notice. Last year, reporter Cristina Costantini traveled back to her mother's hometown of Janesville, Wis.; which also happens to be Ryan's place of birth and residence. Here's an excerpt from her reporting:

Driving into Janesville yesterday, my mother stopped to show me that old soda counter where girls would go to "flirt with the boys" after class, and we noticed yet another change. Where the old shop used to be, we found a Fiesta Mexicana grocery store that sold pig's ears, rosary beads, and Virgen de Guadalupe candles. The town, almost entirely white 15 years ago, has seen a recent influx in Latinos.

Ryan has witnessed this phenomenon first hand and has worked to establish alliances among his Latino constituents. He regularly holds town hall meetings in Spanish in cities like Racine and Kenosha.

While Ryan's support for comprehensive immigration reform fits into his economic ideology, political expediency may be a consideration as well.