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U.S. Representatives Luis Gutierrez, Paul Ryan team up to push for immigration reform

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Updated: May 24, 2013 6:33AM

Promising it would enhance national security and strengthen the American economy, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was in Chicago on Monday making a case for immigration reform, partnering with an unlikely ally: U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Gutierrez (D-Ill.), known as a national leader on the issue, paired up with Ryan to promote Congress’ next anticipated big battle, with Ryan predicting it would take the bulk of the summer to hammer out an agreement acceptable on both sides of the aisle.

When asked whether the Boston Marathon bombings were a sign that this was not the time for the immigration-reform debate, Ryan said he saw it another way.

“I would say for the sake of our national security, we want to modernize our immigration laws. We do not even know how to track people who overstay their visas. We need a modern immigration system that helps us not only protect our border but protects national security in all of its aspects,” Ryan said in a session with reporters. “So if anything, I would say this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws. We need it for national security, we need it for our economy.”

Ryan, the one-time vice presidential candidate to Mitt Romney, appeared in two joint events with Gutierrez on Monday: at the Erie Neighborhood House, followed by a talk at the City Club of Chicago.

At each event, Ryan emphasized that fixing a broken immigration system was key to safeguarding the country’s economy and security.

Ryan’s visit moved to strengthen the Republican Party’s effort to be seen as more inclusive. After President Barack Obama’s dominance with Hispanic voters in the 2012 election, the need to embrace their main cause has not escaped the party.

Gutierrez said Ryan wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately to the immigration debate. He credited Ryan with signing on as a co-sponsor to a 2005 reform package in the House that ultimately failed.

Still, Ryan acknowledged that in order to sell any legislation — a compromise bill is still not drafted in the House — it would need to include aspects appealing to both liberals and conservatives. That ranges from legalizing seasonal workers to tracking people who have overstayed their visas.

Ryan and Gutierrez offered different approaches to the immigration debate. The measured Ryan emphasized federal revenue and federal security in his argument, making the case that good immigration law would be a boon for the economy.

“If you take a look at contributions that immigrants make to society . . . it produces faster economic growth, which brings in more revenue to the federal government,” Ryan said. “So if you look at this issue in its totality, immigration is a net positive contributor to the economy.”

The more emotional Gutierrez, arrested twice for civil disobedience in immigrants’ rights demonstrations, easily moved in and out of English and Spanish. In a news availability with Spanish media, Gutierrez said North Americans don’t understand that there are illegal immigrants who pay taxes. If he tries arguing that point, he says, he loses his audience immediately.

“We spend $18 billion a year on strengthening our immigration system,” Gutierrez said. “I want to make sure we’re taking that $18 billion and making sure it’s there to go after criminals that cause harm in America. When people come out of the shadows and make themselves right with the government . . . now that $18 billion can be used to go and find and exercise for America those who are causing harm.”

On Monday morning, a Mariachi band guided the unlikely political pair into the Erie Neighborhood House, where immigration rights groups, clergy and others convened to rally behind substantial changes in the law that would give more immigrants a path to citizenship.

Gutierrez, a known national leader on immigration rights, said he and Ryan struck up a connection over their shared Catholic faith.

“Right now, we all must acknowledge that we have an immigration system that’s broken,” Ryan said. “It is not serving our interests as a nation. Our broken immigration system does not serve our national security interests. Our broken immigration system does not serve our economic security interests. Our broken immigration system does not serve our family interests . . . We need to fix it.”

Gutierrez said that although he campaigned hard against the Romney-Ryan ticket, Ryan held no hard feelings. When the two saw each other again afterward: “The first words out of his mouth were: ‘It’s good to see you again, Luis,’ ” according to Gutierrez.

When Ryan’s remarks came to a close, the crowd began chanting “Si, se puede!” as the Mariachi band played “Cielito Lindo.” One person waved a banner that read “Gracias Ryan,” with Paul Ryan’s photo in the middle.

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