Cantor defeat may spell end for US immigration reform

The victory of a right wing, anti-immigration candidate in a primary election in Virginia may spell the end for the hope for immigration reform in the US for the next few years.

In November 2014, elections will be held for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Before those elections are held, the Democrats and Republicans must decide who their candidates will be. They do this by way of primary elections.

On Tuesday 10th June 2014, Eric Cantor, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, was defeated in a primary election in Virginia by a right-wing challenger, Dave Brat. Mr Brat is a supporter of The Tea Party, a right-wing faction opposed to 'big government', high taxes and immigration.

Shockwaves through Washington

The victory has sent shockwaves throughout Washington. Mr Cantor is himself on the right of the Republican Party but his opponent, Mr Brat won 55% of the vote in the Virginia Republican primary election compared to Mr Cantor's 44%.

Mr Cantor was seen as a virtual certainty to win the election. He raised $2m for the election compared to Mr Brat who raised less than $200,000. Some political commentators say (perhaps incorrectly) that it was Mr Cantor's willingness to reach a deal with the Democrats on immigration that may have cost him his job as a Representative.

Mr Brat campaigned against Mr Cantor by attacking his willingness to support an 'amnesty' for illegal immigrants. He told Virginia newspaper The Richmond Times Despatch 'With 50 million Americans in their working years unemployed, the last thing we should do is provide amnesty or any form of work authorization to illegal immigrants'.

'You can kiss immigration reform goodbye' – Robert Reich

Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labor and a noted political economist and commentator wrote on his Facebook page 'The lesson won't be lost on congressional Republicans. You can kiss immigration reform goodbye, for one thing. And expect the GOP to move even further rightward'.

For many foreigners, the US political system is confusing. Many non-Americans wonder why, when

  • When President Obama promised to reform the US immigration system in 2008 and again in 2012,
  • When both the Republicans and the Democrats say they want to reform the US immigration system
  • When polls show that as many as 83% of the US public want to see the immigration system reformed
reform of the system hasn't happened yet.

Checks and balances

The answer lies in the US constitution and in the system of 'checks and balances' created by the Founding Fathers of the United States after the American War of Independence. The founders of the US wanted to ensure that no one branch of the state wielded too much power.

The US constitution divides power between the three branches of government. Each can control the way in which the other branches wield power. They are

  • Congress: The US legislature is divided into two houses; the Senate and the House of Representatives (known as 'the House'). Together these are known as Congress. Congress makes new law in the US. It must also pass budgets for the federal government and may remove the President through impeachment in certain circumstances.
  • The President: The President wields executive power. The President runs the country, according to the laws passed by Congress. He is also the commander in chief of the armed forces and may veto laws passed by Congress (though this veto can be overcome with a two thirds vote of both houses of Congress).
  • The Judiciary. The Judiciary interprets laws. Judges are appointed for life and therefore are free from control by the executive or the legislature. The courts may deem actions of the President to be unconstitutional.

Congress passes legislation

For a new law to be passed, it must be passed by both houses of Congress; the upper house, the Senate, and the lower house, The House of Representatives (known as 'the House'). Once it has been passed by both houses, the president must then sign it. It then becomes law.

Consequently, the President cannot introduce immigration reform without the assistance of Congress.

For most of his time in office, President Obama has had to contend with two problems;

  • Congress has been divided. The Democrats control the Senate but the Republicans control the House
  • The divide between the two parties has become more bitter because of the rise of the Tea Party.

Both of these factors have made it harder for the president to pass immigration reform as he promised.

Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act

In 2013, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act; a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have dealt with many of the problems in the US immigration system.

It would

  • Increase spending on border security
  • Establish a 'pathway to citizenship' for the most illegal immigrants. It would take over thirteen years for those who apply to become citizens
  • Award permanent resident visas (or 'green cards') for foreign students who receive doctorates and PhDs from US universities
  • Increase the number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' temporary work visas granted each year from 85,000 annually to a maximum of about 200,000 annually
  • Create a 'w-visa' for low-skilled workers in agriculture and construction
  • Require US employers to check the employment status of all workers against the E-Verify system before employing them

Immigration is 'a weapon in the battle between the parties'

Polling repeatedly shows that the great majority of Americans believe that all these measures are sensible and desirable. Unfortunately, however, that doesn't mean that they will become law. That is because, like everything else in Washington, the issue of immigration has become a weapon to be used in the battle between the parties.

The speaker of the House decides what bills the House votes on and the speaker always comes from the biggest party in the House. The speaker of the House, John Boehner, a Republican, will not even allow the House to vote on the bill.

This is, in part, because Republicans will oppose anything that the president likes as a point of principle. They have, for example, attempted to repeal the President's Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, more than 50 times.

11.5m illegal residents in US

But it is also, in part, because some right-wing Republicans object to the establishment of a 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants. There are thought to be 11.5m illegal immigrants in the US, 80% of whom are of Hispanic ethnicity.

Polling shows that as many as 83% of the US population believes that it would be sensible to allow those people to 'come out of the shadows' and work and pay taxes.

But, there is a small section of society which is implacably opposed to this solution to the illegal immigration problem. This section of society is largely to be found on the right of the political spectrum and therefore will often be attracted to the Republican Party and to the radical Tea Party movement.

Tea Party

The Tea Party is a grassroots conservative political movement rather than a political party. It has no manifesto or policies but is broadly speaking in favour of small government, low taxes and against immigration, particularly illegal immigration. Its members tend to vote for the Republican Party because the Republican Party is the main right-wing party in America.

The Tea Party exerts considerable influence over the Republican Party because Tea Party activists tend to be politically active. They therefore tend to vote in primary elections in greater numbers than more moderate Republicans and they have succeeded in securing the appointment of many right-wing Congressmen and women.

It is this tendency of Tea Party members to engage with the political system and to vote in primary elections, political commentators say, resulted in Mr Cantor losing the primary.

Richmond, Virginia

In order to become a candidate for the Republicans (or the Democrats) in a national election, those wishing to stand must first win a 'primary election'. At the Republican primary in Richmond, Virginia, Mr Cantor was challenged by a candidate supported by the Tea Party, Dave Brat. Mr Brat supports small government, low taxes and is opposed to immigration reform.

Some commentators deny that it was Mr Cantor's alleged support for immigration reform that led to his defeat. Indeed, some commentators say that he was never even a supporter of immigration reform anyway.

They say that this election was purely a personal rejection of Mr Cantor, who was extremely unpopular in Richmond because he was seen as a Washington insider who is too interested in life within the Washington 'beltway'.

Four other primaries

There were four other Republican primaries held in the US on the same day. In all of them, the incumbent Washington insider was successful. Lindsay Graham, one of the authors of the Border Security Act, was returned in South Carolina.

Nonetheless, because many Republicans will face primary elections this year, prior to the national elections in November, Washington insiders say that House Republicans will not back any immigration reform legislation before those elections for fear of being ousted by the Tea Party.

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