Democrats doggedly pursuing a far-reaching immigration bill are counting on help from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate last year and an unlikely candidate for delivering the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's second-term agenda.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who is frequently mentioned in the GOP lineup of possible 2016 presidential candidates, stands apart from many fellow House Republicans in favoring a way out of the shadows for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. in violation of the law.
He casts sweeping overhaul as a necessity to ensure both economic and national security — a fitting argument for an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late Republican congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate who backed an ill-fated effort in 2006 to overhaul the immigration system.
"Paul Ryan says we cannot have a permanent underclass of Americans, that there needs to be a pathway to citizenship," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has been working relentlessly on immigration legislation. "He is my guiding light. I know I get him in trouble every time I say it."
Senior White House aides often mention the Wisconsin Republican as crucial to the prospects for legislation this year, hoping the Republican with impeccable conservative credentials will sway recalcitrant House members. Ryan also is a reminder of two other powerful forces backing an overhaul of immigration laws — the Catholic Church and business.
Ryan is a practicing Catholic who made a point of attending Mass every Sunday during the jam-packed 2012 campaign; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly favors the first major changes to immigration in 27 years.
Ryan also represents a southeast Wisconsin district in a state that relies on the manufacturers of Waukesha engines, Kohler generators and numerous supply chains. The companies are counting on immigrants to fill future factory jobs.
"The American economy needs immigration reform, certainly the Wisconsin economy does," said Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's chamber of commerce.
Ryan made his appeal at last week's closed-door GOP meeting, urging Republicans to seize the moment and opportunity.
He "made some very good points about how immigration is part of our history, it's made us great as a country. The diversity of America is one of its greatest strengths," recalled Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. "I will heartily agree with that. I think all of us in the conference accept that and believe that, and that's where we recognize that this is a problem that has to be dealt with."
The difficulty for Ryan — and proponents of immigration legislation — is the fracture within the Republican Party. National Republicans are pressing for immigration legislation and consider it vital to helping the party improve its standing with the nation's fastest-growing minority, Hispanics. The Romney-Ryan ticket got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, a downward trend that GOP leaders fear will undermine the party in future presidential elections.
Ryan says any immigration legislation has to address the question of the 11 million living in the U.S. unlawfully. Improving border security alone is not enough.
"You can't fix the system, in my opinion, this is my personal opinion, without coming up with a viable solution for the undocumented and it's got to be a solution that respects the rule of law, that doesn't grant amnesty, that respects the person who came legally from the beginning by making sure that those who are undocumented go to the back of the line, and I think we can come up with that," he said.
But House Republicans in gerrymandered districts with few Hispanic voters have shown little inclination for addressing a path to citizenship, let alone an urgency to deal with immigration at all. Forces of personalities — Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer — helped steer a comprehensive bill to passage in the Senate on a strong, bipartisan vote of 68-32.
The House, which has adopted a piecemeal approach, is unlikely to consider any legislation before the August break, a timetable that raises doubts of any immigration legislation passing Congress this year.
Ryan is undeterred. He is working away from the spotlight, staying in contact with the bipartisan "Gang of Seven" House lawmakers trying to craft a bill. He doesn't see himself in a high-profile role like Rubio, arguing it's an approach that doesn't work in the House.
"There are lots of different pockets of parties here in the House. And I've always believed from passing budgets and other big pieces of legislation that listening to members, talking with members, negotiating is the most effective way of getting things over the finish line," he said in a recent interview. "It's kind of more of a workhorse role than a show horse role only because I just find that's the most effective way of getting things through the House."
Ryan is hardly a newcomer to the issue. In 1994, when he worked with Kemp, he wrote a 4,000-word rebuttal to proponents of Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative that denied benefits to immigrants in the country illegally. He backed the immigration overhaul bill crafted by McCain and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that nearly became law in 2007.
In April, he joined Gutierrez at the City Club of Chicago to speak out for changes to the immigration system.
Proponents of immigration legislation are pressing to get the House to back an overhaul bill. Senators this week identified 121 House Republicans seen as persuadable in favor of a bill, and Ryan was on the list.
The Budget Committee chairman, whose next job may be head of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, makes his case based on numbers.
"Baby boomers are retiring to the tune of 10,000 people a day for the next 10 years," Ryan said. "We're going to have labor shortages in this country in the next decade. We need to have our immigration system prepared for that. It's going to take time to do that and that's why I think we need to do it now."
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.