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Cantor's defeat didn't doom immigration reform — it was already doomed

Not gonna happen
Not gonna happen
Bernard Pollack/Flickr

The fact that David Brat and Eric Cantor, though both anti-immigration hardliners, spent so much time attacking each other as soft on immigration has led to a lot of immigration-related morning-after spin. Is Brat's victory a thundering defeat for the forces of reform? Or should we pay more attention to things like Eric Cantor's penchant for big-spending on Beltway fundraising or his disagreement with Brat about the NSA?

Asking pundits who didn't predict Cantor's loss to explain why it happened seems like a fool's errand. But as far as immigration reform's legislative prospects, I think everything you need to know is summed-up by the Iron Islanders from Game of Thrones — what is dead may never die.

The problem with immigration reform, after all, is pretty simple — most House Republicans think it's a bad idea.

Most members of the House of Representatives are Republicans. Thus by the rules governing the House, the GOP leadership gets to decide which bills come up for a vote. The leadership can bring up bills that most GOP members intend to vote "no" on, but if most GOP members don't want there to be a vote the leadership can't hold a vote. And immigration reform is a really big deal that most Republicans very genuinely think is a very bad idea. They think people who migrated to the United States without permission are criminals whose interests shouldn't factor into public policy analysis, and that the best thing for the country would be for them all to leave.

Eric Cantor losing doesn't change this calculus, and Eric Cantor winning wouldn't have changed it either.

There are two things that could change it:

  1. Persuasive substantive arguments from folks like Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham who think immigration reform would be good for America.
  2. Overwhelming political pressure such that House Republicans fear non-passage of reform will jeopardize their majority.

Even the most diehard reform advocates I know don't really try to argue (2) with a straight face, so you're left with (1). And it's pretty clear that pro-reform conservatives are losing the argument and have been losing the argument steadily for years.

The question now facing immigrants is how far they can persuade the White House to go with the unilateral powers at Obama's disposal. And people who have problems with the immigration status quo that can only be addressed through legislative reform — including Americans across the country whose labor market prospects would benefit from an influx of new skilled workers — can do nothing but wait for another couple of election cycles to pass.