ELKHORN, Wis. (AP) — Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is using a series of town hall meetings in Wisconsin this week to tout his support for a bipartisan immigration reform package that will grant citizenship to large numbers of people living illegally in the United States.
Ryan highlighted his backing of the immigration reform bill during his opening comments at town hall meetings Tuesday in both Elkhorn and Burlington. Ryan, of Janesville, includes the issue in his opening slide show that he's been using all week at meetings in his southern Wisconsin district. Last week, he joined with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez in Chicago to call for immigration reform.
Ryan's speaking out on the issue comes as Republicans are trying to broaden the base of their party and reach out to minority groups. Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate last year, is being mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 but he hasn't said yet whether he will run.
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who suggested that vanishing job opportunities would prompt immigrants to "self deport," carried only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. A Republican Party study of that election concluded, among other things, that the GOP must appeal to more Hispanics, and to do so it must "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, said during Tuesday's town hall meetings that immigration reform is "long overdue."
"We want effective, enduring reform so we don't have another undocumented population 10 years from now," he told a crowd of more than 100 people in Burlington.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has proposed legislation that would give those in the U.S. illegally a 13-year path to citizenship.
Ryan said that deal must secure the border, employ a system to verify a person's identity when they get hired, create a workable system for legal immigrants, and create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million U.S. residents who don't currently have legal status.
"We have to come up with a system so we can get this right," Ryan said. "You have to have legal immigration that works and it doesn't right now."
Despite Ryan's support, Republicans in the House are expected to resist the immigration reform package. Many of them dislike the idea of granting amnesty to those in the country illegally, and some say it's foolish to enfranchise likely Democratic voters.
Ryan, after referring to previous failed attempts at immigration reform, said Congress must work to get it right this time.
"You have to have a workable, legal immigration system so the economy can get the people it needs," he said.
Mike Tate, Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman, said in a written response to Ryan's comments that he was "cynically trying to appeal to any voters who will listen." Tate said Ryan's "newfound pro-immigration stance might be a little more believable if he hadn't voted against the Dream Act to provide a legal pathway for undocumented students in 2010."
In addition to immigration, Ryan also discussed attempts to balance the federal budget, his ongoing opposition to the federal health care overhaul, and efforts to reform the tax code. He fielded questions for more than an hour at each of the first two of Tuesday's town hall meetings, but no one asked whether he intends to run for president in 2016.
In a separate interview with The Associated Press prior to the first town hall meeting, Ryan said it was "too far away to speculate about" his intentions in 2016.
Ryan had town hall meetings scheduled in his district through Thursday, before heading to the state Republican Party convention on Friday in Wausau. Republicans gathering for that meeting planned to honor Ryan for his vice presidential campaign last year.