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Is Ryan wooing Hispanics for 2016?

Ruben Navarrette says Paul Ryan's visit to Chicago may have been partly to  kick off  his 2016 Hispanic outreach efforts

Story highlights

  • Ruben Navarrette: In Chicago visit, Rep. Paul Ryan speaks in favor of immigration reform
  • He says many in GOP oppose Senate bill; Latinos know Ryan has record of backing reform
  • Is Chicago trip kickoff of 2016 Hispanic outreach efforts? It could help, if he follows up, he says
  • Navarrette: Rubio, Bush others likely to do same. In Latino outreach, little things mean a lot

I bet that Paul Ryan is not typically serenaded by mariachis.

But then, this week was anything but typical for the Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

Ryan traveled to Chicago--and across the aisle--to appear alongside Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, perhaps Congress' most vocal proponent of immigration reform.

The two men gave a joint presentation at the City Club of Chicago, where -- even in that bluest of blue cities -- the business friendly audience probably favors many of Ryan's economic policies.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Before that, the two lawmakers went into a Hispanic neighborhood to meet with activists, members of the clergy and immigrant advocates. It was there that the mariachis greeted them. In the crowd, a man appreciatively held up a banner with Ryan's photo on it and the words: "Gracias, Ryan."

For immigration reform advocates, there is a lot for which to be thankful these days. At a time when more and more Republicans in Congress are expressing skepticism about a Senate bill that combines border security with a guest worker program and legal status for the undocumented, Ryan is doubling down on his support. He thinks the current system is failing us. He told the crowd that what we're doing now is bad for national security, bad for business, bad for communities and bad for families.

Right you are, congressman. On all counts.

During the visit, Ryan told reporters: "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. 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."

And when Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, talks about the economy, he is on familiar terrain.

"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," he said. "So if you look at this issue in its totality, immigration is a net positive contributor to the economy."

The congressman also knows his way around the immigration issue. In 2005, as Gutierrez reminded the crowd, Ryan co-sponsored an immigration reform bill in the House that was ultimately voted down. He has said he is especially concerned that employers, including the kinds of farmers and ranchers who populate his home state, have access to the labor they need to stay in business.

In fact, over the last decade, Ryan has supported or co-sponsored what the anti-immigrant group, NUMBERS USA, disdainfully called "various amnesties to give illegal aliens a path to citizenship." It's one reason that the group -- which advocates both an end to illegal immigration and a dramatic reduction in legal immigration, to pre-1965 levels -- gave Ryan's career in Congress a "C." That grade puts him in the bottom 10% of all current Republican members of Congress, according to the group's executive director, Roy Beck. And, conversely, it puts him in the top 10%, as far as many Latinos are concerned. You see, it only helps build Ryan's "street cred" that he's not popular with groups that attract so many anti-Latino nativists.

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The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee is almost certain to run for the top job in 2016 as part of what could turn out to be a crowded field. Other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination could include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

With that kind of lineup, you can expect immigration to be a top issue in the GOP primary. Rubio is the de facto spokesman for the 844-page comprehensive immigration reform bill cobbled together by the Senate's "gang of eight." Cruz is a vocal critic of the plan. Lately, Jeb Bush seems to have cornered the market on just about every position imaginable on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Ryan needs to get his ducks in a row. Was this week's trip to Chicago the kick-off of his 2016 Hispanic outreach efforts? If so, will it work?

It could, if it is followed up by other visits and more speeches and continued attention to Latino concerns. It's a start. If Ryan talks less, and listens more, he'll stand out from other politicians and could impress Latino voters as someone whose interests, on some issues, align with theirs.

The GOP is doing a lot of soul-searching these days trying to figure out how to get Latinos to show them some love. There are strategy sessions and focus groups and smarty-pants consultants with their pie charts and bar graphs. But folks make this stuff harder than it really is.

In the world of Latino outreach, sometimes, it's the little things that count for a lot. Like a Republican congressman from Wisconsin taking an unexpected detour to say his piece and pay his respects to a constituency poorly served by both parties, despite the likelihood that he'll be hammered by some in his own party.

Like the man said -- Gracias, Ryan.

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