Global Politics

Eric Cantor's historic defeat in Virginia hardly fazes an immigration activist

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Credit: Jason Margolis

Grassroots activists in Houston attend a picnic to rally support and brainstorm ideas for ways to push for immigration reform in Washington.

Washington's political elite are still absorbing the political shockwaves after Tuesday’s stunning primary results in Virginia. Congressman Eric Cantor —  the GOP's majority leader in the House — was soundly defeated by college professor Dave Brat, a Tea Party favorite.

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Political pundits are going wild dissecting the unexpected result, and one of the factors they're citing is Cantor's stance on immigration reform.

Here’s what Cantor said last year on Fox News:

“If a kid was brought here by his parents, or her parents, unbeknownst to them, and known no other place than America as home, why wouldn’t we want to give them a path to citizenship?”

Cantor spoke often in support of a DREAM Act-type of solution, to help young people remain in the US who were brought here by their parents illegally. Cantor's critics say he was offering amnesty to lawbreakers.

“I think the issue of immigration did play an issue to help the guy [Dave Brat] who won the election, but I think he won the election because Mr. Cantor was not paying attention to his constituency,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a grassroots organization that advocates for immigration reform. “[Cantor] played both sides of the [immigration reform] issue, and he stopped the debate in the Congress.”

Many Washington insiders have been saying that the chances of immigration reform were already on life support, and that last night’s election in Virginia pulled the plug. Monterroso disagreed, arguing that only the Republican Party can pull the plug.

“66,000, which is the number of voters in a conservative area in Virginia who decided the election, should not define whether or not the issue of immigration [reform] is dead.”

Monterroso said moderate Republican candidates now have a choice: “Either you be afraid of the Tea Party, or you become concerned about your constituency in the areas you represent that are growing. And we know that, for a lot of congresspeople, their districts are not looking the same as Virginia.”

In the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, where Brat was elected on Tuesday, just 5 percent of the population is foreign born. Nationwide, demographic trajectories point to continued growth among Latinos, particularly in the American West. 

Demographics may be changing, but in the short-term, it’s hard not to see yesterday’s election in Virginia as a blow to the grassroots immigration reform movement. So how does Monterroso keep his troops, the people out on the streets with clipboards signing up voters and informing the public, motivated?

“The same way that we’ve been keeping them motivated for the last 20 years,” said Monterroso. “Just keep in mind that this issue of immigration reform, over the last eight months, has been declared dead by a lot of different people, by political pundits, by media, by the Republican Party, and we’re still here. Failure to fix immigration reform is not an option.”

Monterroso said they stay motivated by trying to help the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US, living in the shadows and separated from their families in foreign countries.  

“One thing you’re going to start seeing more and more [is] our community not only registering, but participating a lot more in the elections — the same thing that happened in 2012, it was a big surprise for the Republicans … They found out that our community went out to vote for the candidate that they felt was going to represent our issues.” 

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