Opinion » Viewpoint

A Failure to Lead on Immigration Reform

When it comes to Eric Cantor’s late-spring fall, the media got it wrong.

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Progressives are still celebrating the fall of Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader defeated in a June 10th primary by a sleeper candidate, an economics professor named David Brat. The national media, asleep at the switch on this one, rolled out an easy, unconvincing thesis to explain this political collapse: Cantor's willingness to consider some sort of immigration reform.

Yet a comprehensive immigration reform bill, passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate last summer, continues to languish in the GOP-led House of Representatives. The leadership in the House, including Cantor, has refused to take up the bill, offering a myriad of stall tactics and maneuvers to slowly smother the legislation, without having to go on record as actually killing it. The bill is moderate, sensible legislation that seeks to regularize the immigration status of millions of people who live in the United States, pay taxes, and contribute to our culture and society. The majority of Americans (62 percent), and 70 percent of Republicans in Cantor's district, support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway for citizenship.

Cantor's defeat is really related to his arrogance, his out-sized national political ambition, and his disingenuousness on the immigration issue. His refusal to actually lead on immigration, and his inability to produce any type of counter-legislation on this critically important question, exposed him to attacks as just another political opportunist. It's no surprise, then, that Cantor's negatives going into the primary stood at 63 percent. The surprise is the national shock over his defeat and the misappropriation of the meaning of this political collapse.

The national media, political pundits, and the Republican Party's narrow focus on immigration as a factor in Cantor's defeat has given the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party an excuse to do nothing on immigration reform. Thus, a political implosion in a tiny corner of America means fear and fecklessness prevail in the nation at large: There will be no vote on a perfectly sensible Senate immigration bill this year.

House members are afraid of losing their seats if they vote on a politically perilous issue that's become perilous only because we've let the bullies and the irrational define the issue. 

For example, Brat claimed Cantor would support "open borders" if elected to another term in Virginia. This is pure campaign fiction and political manipulation. By hiring and equipping thousands of additional border patrol agents, President Obama has done more to close down our Southern border with Mexico in the past five years than any previous president. Obama's administration also has deported two million people in the past five years. Cantor has hardly supported this effort, or this president, but "Open Borders Cantor" is absurdist, magical rhetoric.  

But sometimes in politics, the truth is less important than people's feelings and people — at least those in Cantor's district around Richmond — are feeling besieged. Their public schools are collapsing, their Congress won't support a raise in minimum wage, their purchasing power is declining, and good factory jobs left their city decades ago.  

We suspect the professor from Randolph-Macon College will be elected to the House of Representatives in November as an insignificant, back-bencher with no real Cantor-like political power. We can live with that. But we can't live with the deception, disingenuousness, and lies that have become the new norm in American politics.

It's truly disheartening to watch professors, tasked with seeking and telling the truth, become politicians and begin to speak in fiction. Professor Brat's exaggerations have real consequences when the national outcome of a Cantor defeat is the concomitant tabling of much-needed immigration reform for our nation. Evidently, Brat is unconcerned with the millions of deportations, the tens of thousands of detentions, the separation of families, and the squelching of opportunity for kids who dream of studying and living in peace in the U.S.  

Cantor's defeat points to the urgency of passing comprehensive immigration reform now. We can't allow politics to be hijacked by cynicism, laughable exaggerations, and bullying of the most vulnerable among us. Comprehensive immigration reform is in our best interest as a nation. And it will happen. Politicians who tell half-truths and outright lies to score political points at the expense of urgent national policy are not patriots. They're the enemies of free societies and open democracies.

(Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board chair at Latino Memphis, Inc.; Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.)

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