Reformers fear death of immigration bill

Lauren Schneiderman

Some of Congress’s most fervent immigration reformers say their legislative push is likely dead after Tuesday’s staggering primary election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

While some Democratic leaders put on a brave public face to argue the issue still has legs, other pro-reform lawmakers said the politics on Capitol Hill now make progress all but impossible ahead of November’s elections.

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“There’s going to be a panicked scramble in the Republican caucus to stay away from anything other than punitive things on immigration,” Rep. Rául Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a strong supporter of comprehensive reform, said Wednesday. “While I’d like to be able to eat crow on this one and say something will happen, I’m very doubtful.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) delivered a similar message.

“It’s bad news,” he said. 

“Cantor was at least willing to entertain the idea” of immigration reform, Van Hollen added. The majority leader’s historic loss sends the message that it’s politically risky for Republicans “even to talk about it.” 

Across the aisle, pro-reform Republicans were also skeptical that anything immigration-related will move in the wake of Cantor’s loss.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he’s “very doubtful in light of last night.” Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) argued the issue is “just too toxic” to address “with an election pending.” And Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) predicted that nothing contentious — “especially immigration reform” — will be done ahead of the midterms.  

“Whether or not immigration was the reason that Eric lost, that’s the perception among a lot of people right now,” King said. “I don’t see anything happening between now and November on really any controversial issue.”

Cantor’s primary loss Tuesday stunned Washington’s political establishment, launched a frantic leadership struggle among House Republicans and raised countless questions about Congress’s legislative plans for the rest of the year, not least of all on immigration reform.

Cantor’s primary opponent, economics professor Dave Brat, was a political novice who raised only a fraction of the money Cantor did, yet he defeated the majority leader by a whopping 10-point margin, aided largely by his relentless attacks on Cantor’s immigration record as being too soft.

Cantor last year had floated a proposal providing a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. And in January, he endorsed a set of GOP immigration “standards” that permitted illegal immigrants to remain in the country and work without fear of deportation, provisions Brat deemed “amnesty” for law-breakers.

Cantor attempted to counter Brat’s attack in recent weeks, launching a flier campaign in which he took credit for blocking a Senate-passed immigration bill because it would provide “amnesty” to law-breaking “aliens.”

It didn’t work.

Brat won the contest with 56 percent of the vote, and on Wednesday the Tea Party favorite said the immigration issue sealed his victory. 

“Amnesty, at the end, was the clear differentiator between myself and Eric Cantor,” Brat said.

Cantor announced Wednesday that he’ll resign as majority leader on July 31. 

“It is with great humility that I do so,” he said during a press briefing in the Capitol.

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, including a number of House Republicans, were quick to attribute Cantor’s loss to his position on the issue.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) pointed to Cantor’s openness to allow citizenship for some illegal immigrant children as “a bill to provide basically amnesty.” And Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted a mock invitation for GOP leadership candidates who will take a harder line on enforcement.

“Wanted: Applicants for Majority Leader in US House who have a record opposing amnesty,” King said. “Come see me.”

Not everyone is convinced that Cantor’s downfall marks the end of the immigration reform debate this year. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Congress’s most vocal proponent of a system overhaul, vowed Wednesday that “immigration reform is not dead.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that President Obama “will continue to make a case for why Congress will act.” And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested Cantor’s replacement, whoever he or she is, would likely be less an impediment to reform than Cantor has been.

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Cantor’s loss makes it easier, not harder, for House leadership to pass immigration reform,” Schumer said.

Immigrant rights advocates have adopted the argument that Cantor’s loss resulted not from his embrace of significant reforms but because he ran away from his previous position at the last moment. They’re quick to note that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) defended his support for comprehensive reform on the campaign trail this year and easily defeated his six primary challengers the same day that Cantor fell.

“Elections are referendums on an incumbent’s leadership ability,” Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, an advocacy group, said Tuesday. “Graham won big. Cantor lost big.”

Still, a number of Democrats are worried Brat’s victory will only embolden like-minded opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, pulling House Republican leaders further to the right and making it tougher to move such a bill through the lower chamber.

“The reports of the Tea Party’s demise were grossly exaggerated,” Van Hollen said. “A group opposed to compromise to begin with now won’t be willing to deal at all.” 

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