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Parsing Ryan: Immigration Stance Open to Interpretation

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Paul D. Ryan has made one thing clear: He’s taking immigration off the table for the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency.  

Yet members on both sides of the aisle are still finding plenty to read into the new speaker’s statements on the subject as they try to game out what Ryan's plans for immigration mean for them.  

Conservatives say they scored a major concession from the Wisconsin Republican: He has been a big champion of efforts to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, but during his bid for speaker promised not to pursue that path in the 114th Congress and, especially, while President Barack Obama remains in office.  

"The major concern for some of our colleagues was that he would move a comprehensive immigration package," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. "Not only did he commit to a number of my colleagues, and myself, that he would not do that until we had a new administration, he has been widely public about his commitment."  

Ryan Outlines Appropriations Strategy 

Democrats say Ryan is a hypocrite whose catering to the far right marks a betrayal of his principles.  

“The unity of the Republican Party is more important than advancing sensible immigration policy,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., who once stood beside Ryan at immigration events. “[Ryan’s] made a decision that that’s more important."  

So far, the only area of immigration law Ryan has said he's willing to touch is border security and enforcement, but only if there's "consensus" to move ahead.  

"I think that would be fine if we can advance that," he said Tuesday at a news conference. "But I do believe that if we try to move in a comprehensive way with a president who's proven he wants to go it alone, I don't think that works."  

That's a red flag for Democrats and even some moderate Republicans, who know border security legislation is a magnet for amendments they consider anti-immigrant.  

But strengthening border security is just one element of "comprehensive immigration reform," which typically refers to an entire package of provisions aimed at rewriting existing immigration policy and laws. That would include changes to the legal immigration system, as well as reducing the flow of people who arrive in the U.S. illegally.  

House Republican leaders from the start have said they would only move immigration bills "piecemeal," not like the Senate that advanced massive legislation in 2013.  

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a founding member with Meadows of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, interpreted Ryan's statements as consistent with that prior pledge.  

"I think [Ryan's] prohibition is on comprehensive immigration plan ... to me, comprehensive is everything: It's border security, plus legal immigration, plus legal status," said Mulvaney, describing a package like the one the Senate passed in 2013. "When he tells me he doesn't want to do comprehensive, it still, I think, opens the door for border security."  

So if Ryan is ruling out an immigration overhaul "package," would he be willing to move immigration bills piecemeal — such as a standalone measure aimed at giving the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. legal status?  

"No," said Mulvaney, who in the previous Congress urged House Republicans to support some form of immigration overhaul legislation. "No, no, no, no, no. I don't know if [Ryan's] used those exact words but I think everybody knows he's not willing to move that piece."  

Rep. Matt Salmon, another HFC member, said Ryan is expected to allow floor votes on immigration-related amendments to underlying bills, in keeping with his promise to let the House "work its will" on tough issues.  

The Arizona Republican said that includes amendments offered every appropriations season by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to roll back  Obama's program granting stays of deportation to certain undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents.  

“That’s been something the majority of the conference has supported every time he’s done it,” Salmon said of King amendments.  

Salmon’s assessment of Ryan’s position is exactly what Gutierrez fears. “When I hear the speaker talk about not bringing up immigration reform, that doesn’t mean [Republicans] won’t bring up right-wing zealotry," Gutierrez said.  

But there's one way, Ryan could earn some good favor with Gutierrez and other like-minded immigration supporters. If Ryan lets King offer his amendments, then those on the other side say the speaker should extend the same courtesy to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.  

For years, Republican leadership has blocked Denham from getting a vote on his amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to extend legal status to undocumented immigrants in exchange for military service, known as the ENLIST Act.  

Next year's defense policy bill could be the year the trend is reversed, Denham told CQ Roll Call Tuesday night, assuming Ryan lives up to his promise to let "regular order" set the course for floor debate.  

"There's been a lot of talk about rules changes, one of those being the Hastert Rule," said Denham.  

"I'm confident we have the majority of the majority," he said, "so when bills have that type of support, we would expect that to come up — whether that's border security or the ENLIST Act."  

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