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Williams: Cowed GOP leaders run from immigration reform

Greg Nash

Where does the House Republican leadership stand on immigration reform?

— Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), said last week he is “not aware” of any Republican plan to get an immigration deal through his panel and to a vote on the floor before Congress’ August recess.

— When Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) was recently asked why he has failed to get an immigration bill to the floor, he reacted by saying “Me?” Boehner appeared to be passing the buck to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who sets the schedule for floor votes.

— At the moment, Cantor wants no part of anything that can be labeled “amnesty.” He started backtracking on support for reform during his fight to win Tuesday’s GOP primary in his congressional district. Cantor is facing a hard-right challenger, Dave Brat, who opposes any citizenship or legal status for illegal immigrants as “amnesty.”

Brat is telling voters: “Virginia workers are suffering. And the only thing Eric Cantor cares about is delivering low-wage foreign workers to his corporate donors.”

One of talk radio’s leading conservative voices, Laura Ingraham, recently told Breitbart News that Cantor “could have taken immigration off the table. He chose not to.”

Cantor’s response to Brat and Ingraham has been to pledge in ads and direct mail that he opposes “amnesty.” Even a protest against Cantor for stalling immigration legislation, led by reform proponent Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), has only fueled Ingraham’s ire.

She believes “Cantor and Gutierrez are working hand-in-glove on the timing of when immigration reform will pass and what form it will pass.” And she predicts that if Cantor wins his primary, he will revert to past efforts to work for reform, possibly including a path to citizenship.

That charge seems to have put Cantor in a fright. For now he has not scheduled any floor vote on an immigration reform package.

As a result, the window is rapidly closing for the Republican majority in the House to deal with immigration reform in June and July. That is the only period remaining before the August recess. Election politics will then preoccupy members for the remainder of the year.

Even a meager effort to pass a scaled down version of the Dream Act is stuck in the House. That smaller bill opens a chance at citizenship for people who entered the country illegally but now serve in the military. Earlier versions included young people enrolled in school.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) is the chief sponsor of the Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training Act (ENLIST). 

“The ENLIST Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism — serving their country — to earn legal status,” said the Congressman, who represents a 40 percent Latino farming district.

He contends the act is a change to military code and not new immigration law. That’s why he asked Boehner and Cantor, who have both spoken out in support of the idea, to attach the act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. But Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) threatened that “all hell” was going to “break loose” in Congress if the ENLIST Act was attached to the defense bill.

All of this was enough to send Boehner and Cantor running. “We have supported it [the ENLIST Act] in the past but trying to do this on the national defense authorization bill seemed to us to be an inappropriate place to do it,” Boehner explained to reporters. He would not even say if the GOP leadership would permit the act to come to the floor for consideration on its own.

The paralysis gripping House Republican leaders was supposed to have ended with the primary campaign season and challenges from the far right.

But most primary contests are now done. Incumbents have overwhelmingly beaten back far-right, Tea Party challengers in the Senate and the House. Polls consistently show both Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans support Congress taking action on immigration reform.

Also, several conservative activists have come out in support of immigration reform recently, including Tea Party Express’s co-founder Sal Russo.

The chairman of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas, is working with Russo and the head of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, to rebut the claim that Tea Party conservatives are blocking reform. Their voices give added weight to longstanding calls from the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce for immigration reform.

“The fact are there, are the guts there?” asked Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. But so far the House leadership seems blind to facts and polls and the rising number of conservative leaders calling for them to act.

The White House has tried to help by holding off on executive action to halt some deportations. But some interpret that peace offering as a threat. 

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is trying to find a plan that can win Republican support, said the White House pledge only gives added power to the claim that President Obama is waiting to act on his own and can’t be trusted to enforce a new immigration law.

Fear continues to be the defining trait of Republican leadership on immigration. It’s going to take a miracle.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.