Democrats doggedly pursuing a far-reaching immigration bill are counting on help from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate last year and an unlikely candidate for delivering the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda.

Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who is frequently mentioned in the GOP lineup of possible 2016 presidential candidates, stands apart from many fellow House Republicans in favoring a way out of the shadows for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. in violation of the law.

He casts sweeping overhaul as a necessity to ensure both economic and national security — a fitting argument for an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late Republican congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate who backed an ill-fated effort in 2006 to overhaul the immigration system.

‘‘Paul Ryan says we cannot have a permanent underclass of Americans, that there needs to be a pathway to citizenship,’’ says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has been working relentlessly on immigration legislation. ‘‘He is my guiding light. I know I get him in trouble every time I say it.’’

Senior White House aides often mention the Wisconsin Republican as crucial to the prospects for legislation this year, hoping the Republican with impeccable conservative credentials will sway recalcitrant House members. Ryan also is a reminder of two other powerful forces backing an overhaul of immigration laws — the Catholic Church and business.

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