Paul Ryan: ‘I will debate anybody’ who says immigration bill is ‘amnesty’

Earlier this year, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul warned lawmakers not to trip over loaded phrases like "pathway to citizenship" and "amnesty" to describe the effort to overhaul immigration. Doing so, Paul said, would polarize the debate over reform—and he was right.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the immigration bill regularly refer to it as an offer of amnesty to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, while proponents throw around the loosely defined term "pathway to citizenship" to see who is for it and, so, on their "side."

Now that there's actually an immigration bill making its way through the Senate and a similar version coming in the House, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support the effort are pushing back against opponents who use the A-word to frame the bill.

On Wednesday, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who has supported forms of immigration reform since he was a House staffer in the 1990s, declared that he would "debate anybody" who calls the current bipartisan effort "amnesty."

"Earned legalization is not amnesty," Ryan said during a forum on immigration sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers. "I will debate anybody who tries to suggest that these ideas that are moving through Congress are amnesty. They're not. Amnesty is wiping the slate clean and not paying any penalty for having done something wrong."

Ryan pointed to provisions baked into the Senate bill from the beginning that require those in the United States to pay a fine, back taxes, undergo background checks and enter a years-long probationary period before earning citizenship, a process that can take up to 15 years.

"That," Ryan said, "is not amnesty."

During the forum, Paul also said he was confident a bill offering unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship could pass the Republican-majority House. He added, however, that instead of passing the comprehensive bill as one package like in the Senate, the House may need to break it into different parts to secure passage.

"One big bill usually crashes under its own weight. That's what we had in 2006. But if we had a bill that's broken up into a few pieces, all of which can join in the end of a process, then you can get all of these things moving," Ryan said. "That's what I think we'll end up doing in the House. I think an earned legalization—not amnesty—an earned legalization process which deals with all of these issues, including the undocumented population, is something that I believe the House can and will deal with."