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.
“For many of the people who were brought to the country as toddlers, this essentially boils down to a ‘tough on babies’ stance,” said Erika Andiola, an activist who lobbies for the Dream Act and would be eligible for legal status under the legislation.
From a political standpoint, Hispanic commentators said Mr. Ryan also fell short of the outreach Mr. Ryan could have made if he had chosen a Hispanic Republican, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
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. Swartz, who said he held a fundraiser for Mr. Ryan in his Washington home when the Wisconsinite was first seeking office in the 1990s, said he is firmly in the mold of Mr. Kemp, Ronald Reagan and others who pushed for immigration as a way to rejuvenate the U.S. and its economy.
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.
“Smith was getting a free ride because he knew immigration law so much better than most of the other members,” Mr. Ryan told the magazine, which said Mr. Ryan led an internal congressional letter-writing effort to tell members the bill would actually cut legal immigration by as much as 70 percent. “Once people learned what was actually in the bill, we were able to peel them off, one by one.”
Despite that battle, Mr. Smith, who is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and is still pushing for a crackdown, has been enthusiastic about Mr. Ryan this week.
“Paul Ryan is a great choice,” the Texas Republican said. “He will enable the campaign to focus on the economy where Obama is weak. There is no one better to speak to the American people about how to fix the economy, create jobs and reduce the deficit.”
Mr. Romney picked Mr. Ryan to be his running mate because of the House Budget Committee chairman’s expertise on fiscal matters, and groups that want to see a crackdown on illegal immigration said they weren’t worried Mr. Ryan might sway the ticket.
“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.”
Mr. Ryan’s addition does add some complexity to the ticket with Mr. Romney, who has taken the hardest-line stance of any major-party nominee in history on immigration and used the issue against some of his rivals in the Republican presidential primaries.
Mr. Romney has also backed state immigration laws and courted the endorsements of figures such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who were instrumental in the push for state enforcement.
The Romney campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about squaring Mr. Ryan’s stances with Mr. Romney’s — though when asked about differences in general, campaign aides this weekend said Mr. Romney’s positions would take precedence.