Immigration activists and their allies in Congress are tired of waiting for the White House to act on deportations. And any remaining patience has run out in the aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat to a man who portrayed him as “pro-amnesty.”
The Obama administration, which delayed executive action on deportation policy to give House Republicans time to act on immigration reform, is trying to spin Cantor’s loss as making immigration reform more, not less, likely, with primary season all but finished. But a number of lawmakers on the Hill aren’t buying it.
“As admirable as it is for the president to continue to extend an olive branch to the leadership on the House side, Republicans, to come up with something … it’s not going to happen,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “There will be a panic. The panic will be to stay away from this issue.”
He added: “Cantor’s loss only means that somebody who had been flirting with the idea is gone.”
Cantor’s opponent, Dave Brat, tried to make immigration the focal point of his primary attacks. While Cantor’s support for modest immigration measures (even though he never actually wrote or called up a bill) wasn’t the reason he lost, such a high-profile defeat will, at the very least, put the scare into Republicans, says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
“No one doubts that it complicates the equation that leads toward success on immigration reform. You have to be an idiot to think that it doesn’t complicate it,” Gutierrez said.
For starters, House Republicans are busy figuring out who will be their next leader, and potentially majority whip if the current one moves up (elections will be held June 19). Ushering through any complex matter in the House will be challenging for a conference thrown into chaos by Cantor’s unexpected loss.
Gutierrez, who was disappointed the White House delayed action in the first place, isn’t ready to declare reform dead even now. He’s still sticking to his July 4 deadline for action from House Republicans.
Other members aren’t so optimistic.
“Most Republicans never wanted to do it anyway,” says Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. “The window has been closing. After July 31, we’re only in session for 26 days.”
When asked what the Obama administration should do regarding deportation executive action, Castro said, “They should have taken action already. I think they should take action.”
Organizations like United We Dream, which had already criticized Obama for delaying executive action, point to Cantor’s loss as making their case even stronger now.
Tuesday’s “primary results are another reminder why leadership and action on immigration are desperately needed and why President Obama must deliver relief for our families now,” the group’s manager director, Cristina Jimenez, said in a statement, adding, “Both parties continue playing political games with our families.”
Online Latino advocacy group Presente.org referred to Cantor’s defeat as proving their point that reform is dead. “We urge President Obama to face the facts, stand up to the xenophobic and hateful forces in America, and take action to stop deportations immediately,” the group said in a statement. “Anything less is unacceptable to Latinos across the country.”
One House Democratic lawmaker put it this way: “The time is up for these guys. I didn’t think they were going to move on it before — at least there was some kind of hope. Now, I think it’s certainly dead.”
Rep. Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, says the administration should “absolutely” move on executive action now. “They should have acted sooner than this. This administration has deported more people than any other administration in the history of this country.”
Sires cited the oft-repeated statistic of 2 million deported under the Obama administration as evidence that the president needs to act, particularly given plummeting Hispanic approval for him. On the other end, Republicans charge that the administration is inflating its deportation figures by counting deportations that weren’t counted as such under previous administrations. Removals from the interior having gone down, while those within 100 miles of the border have gone up.
Under pressure from forces on the left, in March Obama directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct a review of the administration’s enforcement of deportation policy, to see if it could be made more “humane.” The results of that review, which are likely not to be extensive in scope, were expected this summer. Then the administration said it wouldn’t announce the results until after August in order to give Republicans one last shot to pass reform. A number of Democratic lawmakers, as well as mainstream immigration groups, backed that calculation.
But advocates on the left said the six-week delay has real-life consequences.
“In the process, cynically, we get set up, politically, to wait,” Grijalva said. “We have a base, the Democratic Party has a base, and I think quite frankly, the president, through his actions, can deal with that base. Absent that, we just become part of the whole and that’s a distinction I don’t want.”
Those looking for signs of hope on the Hill that reform will happen will have to look very hard. House Speaker John Boehner reiterated Thursday that “the issue of immigration reform has not changed” in light of Cantor’s loss, pointing once again to his reasoning: House Republicans can’t trust the president to enforce laws already on the books.
And the expected front-runner in the race to replace Cantor in leadership, current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (who has voiced support for legalization), doesn’t sound any more eager than Boehner to act fast.
But just as Cantor’s loss has thrown the House Republican Conference into chaos, immigration-reform advocates are still figuring out what this means for them.
“I fully expected in the month of June we would be spending a lot of time” on this issue, Gutierrez said in the Speaker’s Lobby, just moments after Boehner walked by and gave him a big embrace. “John Boehner and I would be doing more than giving hugs in the lobby.”