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Is immigration reform dead? That's up to John Boehner.

Protesters targeting Speaker John Boehner.
Protesters targeting Speaker John Boehner.
David McNew/Getty

Few people in the immigration reform debate are radically shifting their expectations or strategies in the aftermath of Eric Cantor's stunning defeat. Supporters of legislative immigration reform are still looking to John Boehner to give them a sign in the next few days or weeks that legislation is still alive — although supporters disagree about how likely that is. Opponents of legislative reform say that Cantor's defeat has killed any chance for "amnesty" until at least 2017. And activists who have pivoted to pressuring President Obama to take executive action to protect unauthorized immigrants say that Cantor's defeat makes it more obvious that the President needs to act.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a leading Republican supporter of immigration reform, might have best summed up the reaction to Cantor's defeat:

"I don't know what this means. I'm very confused."

Could Congress still act?

Pro-immigration-reform advocates from the center-left to center-right still believe there's some chance for Congress to pass an immigration bill this year.

"I don't believe that immigration is dead," Tom Donohue, the president of the US Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg News this morning. Last night, Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto of the AFL-CIO quoted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen saying "It pains me to say this, but immigration is officially dead" — but Ros-Lehtinen fired back on Twitter:

Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra agrees. He told MSNBC that "immigration reform is not if we're going to get done, it's when we're going to get it done."

But that "when" is the biggest question. To date, there's been no indication that the House plans to move forward on reform this summer. Many advocates are following the lead of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who's been saying House leadership has until the July 4th recess to act. That's not much time.

Jeremy Robbins of the Partnership for a New American Economy, which has been lobbying Republicans to support immigration reform, says that the House can act quickly if it chooses to: "It's hard to make predictions on process, but the driving force about when they act is whether they have the votes." Furthermore, he says, "the reality is that if leadership wants to move a bill, or a series of bills, it's extremely possible and looking more likely that the votes are there" — or at least that support is much broader than it was two years ago.

That leaves immigration reform in the hands of SpeakerJohn Boehner. "Maybe Boehner says 'Fuck it, I'm going to be leaving, the party's gonna go into a wave election in 2016 unless we can get this done, so I'm gonna pull out all the stops,'" says Frank Sharry of immigration advocacy group America's Voice. "Possible? Yes. Likely? No."

Robbins, like Diaz-Balart, is waiting to see how the dust settles after Cantor's loss. But he's also looking for a sign from Boehner. "The signal that we're looking for from Boehner" that immigration reform is still alive, he says, is Boehner saying "We're still intent on getting this done this year." Even better, says Robbins, would be a statement that "We have the votes, and we're working out the process."

But, he says, "I don't know if we're going to get that in the next 72 hours."

Opponents are more certain immigration reform is dead

Opponents of immigration reform are celebrating Cantor's defeat and saying he was beaten by conservative anti-reform sentiment. They're also saying that the primary is the nail in the coffin for an immigration bill in 2014.

"If there's one takeaway on the immigration issue from Cantor's defeat it's that sweeping comprehensive legislation is not going to happen any time soon," Jonah Goldberg wrote on National Review's blog. "I would say 2017 is the earliest it would be considered. That's good news."

Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the leading lobbying group opposing higher immigration levels and legalization of those currently unauthorized, isn't willing to go quite that far. "(Cantor's) defeat, in all likelihood, puts the brakes on any immigration legislation in the House for the remainder of this session of Congress," Mehlman wrote in a statement to Vox.

But, he added, "Both houses of Congress should return in 2015 and put forth a plan that recognizes that amnesty for illegal aliens is not immigration reform, but rather repeats the mistakes of the past."

Calls for Obama to act will only get louder

The clearest calls to action since Cantor's defeat have come from immigration advocates who believe that President Obama needs to take executive action now to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. That's not because advocates who believed, a week ago, that the House could pass immigration reform now believe that it won't. It's because the activists who had already given up on any hope of legislative action in 2014 are now using Cantor's defeat as more evidence that Obama is immigrants' only hope.

Arturo Carmona, the executive director of Latino interest group, said in a statement: "Eric Cantor's defeat at the hands of a tea party extremist prove what many of us have been saying for quite some time: immigration reform is dead in this Republican Congress. In the face of growing xenophobic and racially charged extremism, the only thing that can stop the tearing apart of families and inhumane treatment of immigrants is executive action."

Cesar Vargas of DREAM Action Coalition sounded a similar note to Politico, saying, "Obama offered the House another chance and they are making it very clear they have no intention of taking it. He should offer deportation relief, and other forms of administrative relief, now."

But these advocates have been calling for executive action for several months, and the White House still hasn't obliged. In fact, at the end of last month, President Obama put off his review of deportation policy until the end of the summer in order to give the House more time to pass an immigration bill of its own.

The White House isn't reconsidering that strategy in the wake of Cantor's loss. One advocate who asked not to be named but who was in contact with the White House last night after Cantor's loss told Vox that "They're trying to figure out ways that they can give space to keep the legislative stuff alive."

Advocates are frustrated with the White House's reluctance: "I don't know what, if anything, will wake those people up," says Sharry of America's Voice. But he predicts that it will eventually happen, in response to pressure from activists — just like, in 2012, the administration went from saying it couldn't protect young unauthorized immigrants to deportation to introducing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to do just that. "I suspect that we're going to see a replay of (the fight for DACA) on steroids," says Sharry.

He continues, "Whether they like it or not — and most likely they don't like it — the fact is that with the window of opportunity about to shut on legislative action, the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants will be in their hands."

Waiting for 2016

The elephant in the room, of course, is how immigration reform will continue to affect elections — in 2014, 2016, and beyond. That's obviously an important factor in when the issue comes up again. Mehlman's reference to "both houses of Congress" putting forward an "anti-amnesty" plan in 2015 implies that the GOP will take back the Senate in 2014.

Supporters of immigration reform, meanwhile, are looking toward 2016. Donohue said in May that if Republicans couldn't pass immigration reform before the presidential election, "they shouldn't bother to run a candidate."

Sharry agrees that 2016 has the potential to be a "wave election" for Democrats. But he says that immigration-reform advocates are responsible for making that happen. "For our movement," he says, Cantor's loss "is going to put the focus on voter mobilization. this cycle, next cycle, until we can elect a Democratic House that will be the only way we'll ever be able to pass reform."

In the meantime, he says,"it is important to make it clear who's responsible for blocking reform. And at this point, I don't think there'll be much of an argument."

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