WASHINGTON – Immigration advocates are increasingly losing patience as legislation on a comprehensive reform continues to stall in Congress. They have focused their ire on President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, and now have a new target: Eric Cantor, the House majority leader.
“Eric Cantor is the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-immigrant group America’s voice, during a conference call Wednesday organized to criticize Cantor.
More so than House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Cantor is seen as responsible for the House's election-year failure to act on immigration 11 months after the Senate passed a wide-ranging bill with billions for border security and a path to citizenship for the 11.5 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Cantor, a Virginia Republican who is widely seen as having ambitions of being speaker one day, has hardened his stance on immigration. He faces a tea party primary challenge June 10.
Cantor and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, fellow Virginian Bob Goodlatte, announced last summer that they were developing legislation offering citizenship to immigrants brought illegally to this country as kids. The bill never appeared.
And according to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., Cantor committed last year to helping him bring legislation to a vote granting citizenship to immigrants brought here illegally as kids who serve in the military. No agreement was reached, and Cantor's office announced Friday that Denham's measure would not even be allowed to come to the floor this year as part of the annual defense bill, which the House is considering this week.
Denham said the announcement took him by surprise after talking with Cantor earlier in the day, and he had no explanation.
Cantor's spokesman, Doug Heye, said that Cantor continues to support Denham's bill, the ENLIST Act, as well as legislation allowing citizenship to kids brought illegally, and conversations are ongoing. Heye said Cantor never committed to bringing the ENLIST Act to a vote, just to working on it.
Political considerations play no role, Heye said.
"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."
But Cantor is facing pressure on immigration from his primary opponent, Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College. Brat is a long-shot to unseat Cantor, who cruised to a seventh term with 58 percent of the vote in 2012. But his candidacy has attracted attention from prominent Republicans such as columnist Ann Coulter, who described Cantor as "amnesty-addled."
Earlier this month at a convention in Cantor's district, Virginia conservatives booed the majority leader and ousted one of his allies as chairman of a local Republican committee, elevating a tea party favorite instead.
Brat has seized on the dispute around Denham's bill, accusing Cantor in an opinion piece published in a local online community forum of supporting the legislation "until he saw my primary challenge and principled conservatives' stand on amnesty."
Even before his primary drew near, Cantor was seen as the member of House Republican leadership most opposed to acting on immigration legislation.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.