The “Death” of Immigration Reform—Again Why Eric Cantor’s Defeat Can’t Kill It

June 23, 2014

By Victor C Johnson

Reports of death have been greatly exaggerated at least since 1897, when Mark Twain told the New York Journal that contrary to reports, he was in fact alive. So it is with immigration reform which, these days, is the subject of repeated obituaries. You only die once—unless, apparently, you’re immigration reform, which dies in our newspapers and on our TV screens with monotonous regularity.

One reason these frequent death reports are getting boring is that we always know the culprit—there isn’t even any suspense. In the case of immigration reform’s most recent demise, a hitherto unknown politician named David Brat holds the bloody dagger. His defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia seventh district primary supposedly proves that the tea party is again ascendant and that all hope for immigration reform is gone.

We have several realities of today’s journalism to thank for the immigration-reform-is-dead story line: the 24-hour news cycle, which creates the need for journalists to produce constant reporting on the events of the moment; the horse-race mentality, which requires journalists to declare who’s ahead as of the moment the story is filed; and pack journalism (not a new phenomenon), in which there is tacit agreement on what “the story” is and everyone reports it as such. This year, “immigration reform is dead” is the recurring story, and there are enough events that can be put into that frame to sustain it. But immigration reform has survived all this reporting; the Cantor story doesn’t change that. Here’s why:

One local primary election does not a national trend make.

Sixty-five thousand people voted in Mr. Cantor’s primary, 36,000 for Mr. Brat. As Republican Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “The entire enterprise of turning 36,000 votes in the Richmond suburbs into received political wisdom is suspect.” This was a local election driven by local dynamics and by the campaigns of the respective candidates.

Mr. Cantor lost because he forgot where he came from.

Let’s imagine a world in which immigration reform was not a politicized issue, the tea party did not exist, and a Republican party wasn’t focused single-mindedly on maligning a Democratic president, whatever the costs to the country. It shouldn’t be hard; such a world existed not long ago. Then suppose there was a candidate who was completing his 14th year in office, running for an eighth term, who was so overconfident of his re-election that he didn’t bother to go home to campaign and instead spent his time traveling the country raising funds for his colleagues as part of his House leadership responsibilities and to shore up support for a future bid for speaker. Suppose that he and his campaign staff were so tone deaf that they ignored reports from the district that he was in trouble. Suppose he didn’t even bother to go home on Election Day, but rather hosted a fundraiser at a high-end steak house in Washington, heading home only in time for his victory party that evening. That candidate was Eric Cantor.

If such a candidate lost in such a world, we would of course immediately understand that he lost because he had committed the cardinal political sins of losing touch with his district and taking his voters for granted, and he ran a bad campaign. It happens—although it happens less now that districts are configured so as to protect virtually every incumbent. Of course, a primary-election loss by a majority leader is unprecedented, and that would grab a lot of headlines. But we wouldn’t attach any cosmic significance to the event.

The tea party did not defeat Mr. Cantor.

As U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue has said, the tea party had nothing to do with Mr. Cantor’s defeat. It did not think he was vulnerable, did not think he had a credible opponent, and invested no resources in the campaign.

The immigration reform issue did not defeat Mr. Cantor—or any other candidate.

Mr. Brat had the chutzpah to accuse Mr. Cantor of being the chief enabler of immigration reform in the House. In reality, of course, Mr. Cantor is anything but a friend of reform. As majority leader, he has been a key player in keeping reform legislation off the House floor. Had it been otherwise, he might have won. Polling data suggest not only that Mr. Cantor had become deeply unpopular in his district, but also that his constituents, including Republican voters, in fact favor action on immigration reform legislation.

The reality is that not a single pro-immigration reform incumbent has yet been defeated in the 2014 round of primaries. There’s still time, but it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, the highest-profile pro-reform Republican who has run in this year’s primaries, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, won his primary handily on the same day that Mr. Cantor lost. He won, as Frank Sharry of America’s Voice pointed out, by being up-front and unapologetic about his position, and forthright in explaining it to his constituents, and they respected him for it. Of course, any comparison to Mr. Cantor is unfair; a senator is much more insulated from attack on a single issue than a congressman running in a much smaller district. But the fact remains that to date, being pro-reform has cost the job of no sitting Member of Congress this year.

Republicans will accept the tea party narrative about this election at their peril.

The tea party is surely an issue in this matter, but not because it defeated Mr. Cantor. It’s an issue because its proponents are pushing the narrative that Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that the party has to continue to kowtow to its anti-immigrant stance. But the Republican leadership does not have to accept that self-defeating narrative. Mr. Cantor’s defeat has not silenced the increasingly prominent voices in the party who want it to become a governing party again—for things, not simply against things; a diverse party, not a party of old white males. These people understand that a crucial litmus test is whether or not the party can come up with a constructive approach to immigration reform. And they understand one more thing: It will never be easier than it is now; it will only get harder. My money is on these people, but they have to step up their game. They are the ones who will ultimately decide this issue, and the time is now.

For us in the immigration reform movement, our task is clear: Stop reading the obits, and keep working. We are going to win this fight.

Find out more about NAFSA’s immigration policy agenda at www.nafsa.org/immigration.


SHARE THIS POST