The immigration fight has moved inside the House of Representatives since the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill passed last summer, and it’s beginning to intensify in the dichotomy between the supporters of its two chief leaders, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“Eric Cantor is the number one guy standing between the American people and immigration reform,” pro-reform America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry said on a conference call with Democratic activists earlier this week, according to the Associated Press.
Reformers allege that future speakership ambitions and a tea party primary challenge on June 10 have pushed the Virginia Republican to stiffen, drag it out or not address immigration at all to appease tea party House members and voters. Those same factors have reportedly driven a wedge between the already divided top two tiers of the lower chamber’s leadership.
Boehner criticized his House Republican colleagues last month for avoiding immigration, alleging they viewed the issue as “too hard.”
“We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to,” Boehner said. “They’ll take the path of least resistance.”
Cantor spokesman Doug Heye challenged the assertions against Cantor, citing the majority leader’s announcement with Republican House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte last summer to propose legislation granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children illegally.
Heye also pointed to Cantor’s commitment last year to help California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham bring a bill to the floor offering similar citizenship to undocumented children brought in illegally in exchange for military service.
The bill with Goodlatte has yet to materialize and Cantor’s office announced last week that Denham’s proposal, dubbed the ENLIST Act, would not come to the floor for a vote this year as part of 2015’s defense authorization bill, for which Cantor scheduled a Thursday vote. According to Heye, both of those conversations are still ongoing.
“On the issue of kids, he thinks that’s a great place to start and wants to continue to work on that. He supports the principle behind the ENLIST Act,” Heye said. “These are things that he believes because they’re the right things for him to do. It’s not a political calculation. Eric Cantor’s position on immigration remains consistent.”
Dave Brat, Cantor’s tea party primary opponent and an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, claims his primary bid for Cantor’s seat is the reason the majority leader stepped back from those commitments.
“Eric Cantor seemed content to allow our military to be used as a vehicle for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants until he saw my primary challenge and principled conservatives stand on Amnesty,” Brat wrote in an op-ed for a local Virginia online community forum.
At a convention in Cantor’s district earlier this month, the Majority Leader was booed by Virginia conservatives, and had one of his allies voted out of the chairmanship of the local Republican committee in favor of a tea party replacement.
Despite Brat’s perception of weakness on Cantor’s part and a lack of tea party support for both the majority leader and immigration reform, the majority leader easily re-won his seat in 2012 for the seventh time with 58 percent of the vote — a safe margin by contemporary partisan standards.
A recent pole of 400 self-identified tea party voters conducted amid multiple tea-party primary challenges across the country over the last three weeks revealed not only pro-immigration candidate victories, but that 76 percent of voters were in favor of increased border security along with a pathway to citizenship.
“We have supported it in the past, but trying to do this on the the National Defense Authorization Act bill seems to us to be an inappropriate place to do it,” Boehner said about the ENLIST Act Tuesday.
The speaker has repeatedly expressed in private and public his desire to tackle immigration reform, and is widely perceived to have held back solely due to his divided caucus.
“I’ve had every brick and bat and arrow shot at me over this issue just because I wanted to deal with it. I didn’t say it was going to be easy,” the Ohio Republican told the Middletown Rotary Club in April.
Boehner’s supporters stem from the more-traditional conservative business community base, which supports immigration reform for its economic benefits.
According to a National Bureau of Economic Analysis study released earlier this month, immigrants in science, technology, engineering and math fields have been responsible for higher wages among American workers overall for at least the last 24 years.
A CBS News poll released Wednesday found 51 percent of Americans think illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the U.S. and apply for citizenship, and 43 percent described the status of the economy as in “fairly good” shape — the highest positive views since the housing and financial crisis began in 2007.
The positive outlook follows a better-than-expected jobs report in April, which saw a reduction in the national unemployment rate, but still has a long way to go. Fifty-five percent still view the economy as “somewhat bad,” and the same number said securing the border should be prioritized over addressing the status of illegal immigrants, of which 37 percent were in favor of prioritizing.