Many conservatives gave Sen. Marco Rubio the benefit of the doubt when he said securing the border first was a top priority for the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform effort. Later, when those conservatives realized that Rubio’s plan would first legalize the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, and only then put new border security measures in place, they expressed deep disappointment and disillusionment.
Now the Gang bill has passed the Senate and immigration is the work of the House, where former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a leading reform advocate. Ryan favors the same legalization-first sequence for immigration reform that Rubio and the Gang did. The difference is that now, more conservatives are aware of the basics of reform proposals. And that means Ryan might be in for a rougher ride with the conservative base than Rubio experienced.
That, at least, is one conclusion to take from Ryan’s appearance last Wednesday on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program. Hannity interviewed Rubio several times during the Gang of Eight deliberations. In later interviews, Hannity became more skeptical and questioning, and in the last such interview expressed surprise that Rubio had declared legalization would come before border security. With Ryan in the interview chair, the first thing Hannity wanted to know was when securing the border would come in the sequence of immigration reform.
“I’m sure you are aware, a lot of conservatives including myself are angry,” Hannity told Ryan. “No border security first. How do you feel about it?”
Ryan stressed that the House would not take up the Senate Gang of Eight bill. “We want to have real triggers on the border, real triggers on what we call the E-Verify,” Ryan said. But Hannity wanted to know if that meant border security would come first: “Is securing the border first a top priority for you?” he asked.
“It is a top priority for me,” Ryan answered. But then Ryan explained that immigration reform as he envisions it would, like the Gang of Eight bill, begin with legalization, and only after that would it do the work of securing the border:
Hear what I say. What we’re talking about in the House is we’re saying, people who are here undocumented, because we realize we cannot deport 11 million people and find them and deport them, so we want to put them on a probationary status, that’s the kind of thinking we have here, and they can’t get out of that probationary status, they can’t get legal permanent residence, which is what Chuck Grassley was talking there*, until these border efforts are made, until the border is secure, until the E-Verify set up.
Now, we don’t want to leave it to the executive branch like Janet Napolitano to make that decision, we want objective metrics, we want Congress’ auditing on the General Accountability Office to tell us whether or not these metrics have been met, whether or not the border is really secure, whether or not the verification system is up and running. And only until that has occurred can a person in this status change their status from probation to something other than that.
Ryan’s position could not have been clearer: First, comes the legalization, and then come the measures to secure the border.
Hannity was skeptical and challenging. “My sources have been telling me, congressman, that you guys are considering a five-year temporary legal status, and then if the border security measure is not met in five years, that that would be revoked.”
“That’s right,” Ryan said. “That’s right.”
“I don’t believe that would ever happen,” Hannity shot back. Ryan answered:
Well, look, they can’t get — what a person would want to have, is they would come out of the shadows, they’d get put on probation, they’d pay taxes, pay fines, learn English, learn civics. If they break the terms of their probation, they can be deported. And if the border is not secure by that time, if the verification system is not up and running, they can’t get — not only does the status go away, they can’t get legal permanent residence…
If you want to get this population, the undocumented population, in legal permanent residency, get them a green hard, then these other things have to happen first, the border has to be secured, the E-Verify system has to be up and running. That’s the kind of system we’re talking about here in the House.
That is precisely the structure provided for in the Senate Gang of Eight bill that Senate Republicans opposed two-to-one. Hannity sensed that immediately.
“But what I’m hearing you say, is you’re still giving them legal status first, albeit temporary,” Hannity said. “And I think I speak for a lot of people, congressman. Most people see that when we are promised spending cuts, we get the tax increase, we never get the spending cut. We get the amnesty, we never get the border security. Why wouldn’t you support something such as expediting, building the security measures in — I mean, we sent men to the moon, couldn’t we do within 12 months, 18 months?
Ryan didn’t answer the question, instead stressing that legalization is necessary for the government to learn the real identities of the 11 million currently illegal immigrants. “We think it’s important to get legal immigration working in order to secure the border, to do it this way,” Ryan said. “This is not giving anybody an amnesty.”
“All right,” Hannity said. “So, what you’re saying is, temporary legal status, do you blame me for being suspicious — ”
“Not at all,” said Ryan.
” — that it would never be revoked, whether or not the border was ever secure?” Hannity said. “That why I think myself and a lot of conservatives are saying, don’t we have a right to have sovereign borders and that done first? Why not do that first?”
“Sean, I’m suspicious as well,” Ryan said. Past reforms have not worked, Ryan added, and this time, he wants to take a “wide gate, high fence” approach to immigration. “We think legal immigration that works and is viable is the best way of securing the border — it’s sort of a wide gate, high-fence approach….We need a workable legal immigration system, while we get the border under control and have employment verification system, because illegal immigration and identity theft are sort of one in the same thing.”
No matter how many times Hannity asked the question, Ryan’s answer was still the same: legalization first. But Hannity kept trying. “You know, I’m listening to you, and obviously, you put a lot of thought into this,” he told Ryan. “I talk to a lot of conservatives, they write me, they’re writing me right now on Twitter, and I can predict for you what the answer is going to be. If you don’t trust the government, and I don’t trust the government, and we can send a man on the moon, why don’t we just secure the border and expedite it immediately? Make it a national security priority and then deal with these other issues. Why is that not an option for you?”
“Because in order to secure the border, you have to have a workable legal immigration system that people who are trying to come to this country to work have a way of coming here legally,” Ryan said. “You can’t just seal it off, you need to make sure that people can come here legally and we also have to remember, we’ve got 11 million people in the country who are undocumented who either overstayed their visa or crossed the border illegally. What are we going to do? We’re not going to be able to find them and deport them. We have to find a way of dealing with this population, we want to do it in a way that respects the rule of law, and puts them at the back of the line, so that everybody who did things right — ”
“Can’t you do that after the border is secure, though?” asked Hannity.
“We think it goes with the border,” Ryan said. “We think it’s the best way to secure the border is to have this workable legal immigration system alongside it.”
By that point, it was obvious that Ryan is firmly and probably unchangeably committed to the legalization-first approach. Knowing that many conservative Republicans are firmly and probably unchangeably committed to an enforcement-first approach, Hannity moved on to the consequences of an internecine fight over the issue. “I’m concerned that there’s going to be a conservative revolt and a divide in the Republican Party,” he said. “Are you at all worried about that?”
“Of course I’m worried about that,” Ryan said. “But I want to get it right. I want it to work.”
Hannity’s tone was respectful throughout. But all in all, the interview had an entirely different tone from the questions asked Marco Rubio early in the Senate Gang of Eight process. Look for Paul Ryan to face a more aggressive, and more skeptical, conservative media as the House reform work goes forward.
* It’s unclear what Ryan meant by the reference to Grassley. The Iowa senator introduced an amendment that would have delayed the initial legalization of immigrants until after border security measures were in place. That was a non-starter both for Democrats on the Gang of Eight and would most likely be for Democrats in the House as well.