Friday, August 29, 2014

Eric Cantor was no friend to immigration reform

In the wake of Eric Cantor's primary defeat, there are likely to be lots of pundits saying that Cantor lost "because of immigration reform." Many of those will say that Cantor's loss "kills any chance for immigration reform this Congress."

In the weird, meta, media-fishbowl world of Washington, where (if you're important enough) simply declaring something dead makes it less likely to happen, that might make sense. But taking a step back and looking at the reality of the situation, it's hard to see what Cantor's loss changes.

It's not as if the House was about to take up immigration reform this summer. Far from it. With only a handful of days in session over the summer, and the threat of executive action looming this fall, the House gave no indication that it was considering any immigration bill. The bills that had passed out of committee on 2013 appeared to have been abandoned by House leadership. The principles that leading Republicans released on immigration reform in January 2014 got shelved less than a week later. And every time Speaker John Boehner even went on the record talking about the need to persuade the caucus to act on immigration, he had to backpedal.

It's difficult to understand what would change now — or whether, even if the entire House Republican caucus believed something needed to be done on immigration, there would have been enough time to do it.

It's true that the House Republican leadership was more amenable to immigration reform than the membership of the GOP caucus. But that was mostly due to Speaker Boehner's doing. Cantor wasn't prodding members to act on immigration reform in 2014. Insider reports cast Cantor as either indifferent to immigration reform, or quietly working to avoid it and undermine Speaker Boehner. It's hard to imagine what more could have been done by a House Majority Leader to stymie immigration reform.

It's true that in early 2013, Cantor gave some speeches supporting legal status for young unauthorized immigrants, or DREAMers. (This was substantially to the right of other Republicans who were speaking out at the time — the "middle ground" for vocal House Republicans in early 2013 was legal status for most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States.) But while Cantor was hyping a proposed "KIDS Act" for unauthorized young people last summer, no bill ever materialized. And last month, when fellow Republican Rep. Jeff Denham lobbied Cantor to allow a vote on Denham's much more moderate bill, to allow legal status only for young immigrants who joined the military, it was Cantor who shot him down.

A few weeks ago, President Obama delayed his executive review of deportation policy as a way to give the House a chance to pass immigration reform. That could have presented a pro-reform member of House leadership with an opportunity. Instead, Cantor sent out mailers that week bragging about stopping the "Obama-Reid Amnesty."

In fact, given the reports that Cantor was the most resistant member of leadership to immigration reform, deposing him might have the effect of making leadership more open to reform by default. But the personal positions of members of House leadership don't matter at this point. Immigration reform was dead in this Congress before anyone in Eric Cantor's district went to the polls.

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