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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking loss in Virginia’s June 10, 2014, Republican primary immediately set off a cacophony of declarations that immigration reform is dead. Opponents of reform seized on Cantor’s defeat to little-known, less-well-funded candidate David Brat as a clear referendum against an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Brat had charged that Cantor supported “amnesty,” which forced the congressman to distance himself from legalization legislation his caucus is currently working on. Cantor ran ads identifying himself as “the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.” Pundits believe that Republicans who are vulnerable to a primary challenge will now be skittish to approach the issue.
Supporters of reform are quick to note that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., easily won his primary despite his support for the comprehensive immigration legislation that passed the Senate in 2013. And in North Carolina last month, Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers beat back a primary challenger who had made similar attacks.
The irony is that Cantor was not a strong proponent of immigration legislation. He had voiced support for general reform principles and a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children, but he had not pushed any reform legislation to a vote, and immigration was noticeably absent from his agenda for House action this month. He also helped block a vote on an amendment to a defense bill that would let young illegal immigrants brought to the country by their parents earn green cards by serving in the military.
Some analysts say Cantor’s defeat is more likely a result of his high-profile position in the GOP leadership and that he was seen as being overconfident and out of touch with his district.
Data commissioned by the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change revealed that 72 percent of registered voters in Cantor’s district polled on Election Day said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring immigrants illegally, and allow undocumented residents without criminal backgrounds to gain legal status. The poll found that 70 percent of Republican registered voters would support an immigration reform plan, while 27 percent would oppose. Tellingly, about 63 percent of those surveyed in his district and 49 percent of Republicans said they did not approve of the job Cantor has been doing, according to the poll.
Where does the issue go from here?
“Eric Cantor’s loss is not a death blow to immigration reform,” said Angelo Paparelli, a partner in the business immigration practice group at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, based in Southern California and New York. “The economic and moral imperative to resolve an issue of this magnitude is far larger than one individual’s loss in the primary to talk-media stoked anti-amnesty rantings,” he said. Paparelli said progress is sure to continue, whether it’s incremental action in the House or executive orders from the president. “The struggle for reform is not over.It may be slowed a bit, but the country’s prosperity and its social fabric depend on fixing this broken system,” he said.
Reform was already dead, quipped Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, a conservative outreach group. “I wouldn’t overplay the results of this defeat as immigration restrictionists are already doing. Republicans should not listen to the anti-immigration lobby’s argument that immigration is a losing issue for them,” Aguilar said.
“The reality is that poll after poll shows that the majority of Republican voters, including the majority of voters aligned with the Tea Party, don’t oppose immigration reform. In fact, the majority of them support some form of legalization,” he said.
Cantor’s loss wasn’t really about immigration, said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank based in Washington, D.C. “But if Republicans conclude it was, that could be a hurdle to getting immigration reform done this year or next. If Republicans do decide to avoid immigration reform entirely based on the events of last night, it will make their 2016 climb as tough as Everest." The looming leadership battle for Cantor’s vacated majority leader position may make legislating on anything a pretty unlikely bet this summer, she added.
“While political posturing appears to be thwarting any imminent progress, indications are that while ‘amnesty’ remains unpalatable for many, there is broad consensus around employment-based provisions of proposed law,” said Julie Pearl, CEO and managing attorney of the Pearl Law Group, based in the San Francisco Bay area. “I am hopeful that ultimately there will be reformative solutions that benefit business."
The Council for Global Immigration, a SHRM affiliate, agrees that the one consistency in the debate is the need to reform the legal immigration system. “The disagreements on immigration continue to be about providing citizenship or legal status to the undocumented. No one questions the need to reform our legal immigration system,” said Council Executive Director Lynn Shotwell.
“We still hope legislative reform is possible, but in any instance we are committed to reform our laws to ensure business has the tools to hire a legal workforce and can access the talent it needs to create jobs and grow the economy,” said Council Legislative Director and Counsel Rebecca Peters.
Scott Corley, executive director for Compete America, a coalition representing corporations, universities, research institutions and trade associations that advocates for immigration reform, also remains committed to the issue. “We continue to work closely with our allies in the House—including Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart—to find the best way forward. We believe the economic imperative of addressing this critical issue will win out in the end,” Corley said.
“I wouldn’t rule out immigration reform,” replied Ann Cun, a corporate immigration attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in San Francisco. “Politics is a dynamic animal and what may be today can quickly change tomorrow. If you look at how our economy is in the process of recovering, our laws must help facilitate that recovery. Static and outdated immigration laws hold us back. Our laws cannot remain static but must evolve with the times to stay competitive with the rest of the world."
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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