WASHINGTON (AP) — Immigration advocates angry that legislation has stalled in Congress are increasingly focusing their ire at one person: Eric Cantor, the House majority leader.
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. The issue is a top priority for President Barack Obama.
"Eric Cantor is the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant group, said on a conference call Wednesday organized by Democratic activists and immigrant advocates to criticize Cantor.
The Virginia Republican, widely seen as having ambitions of being speaker one day, faces a tea party primary challenge June 10 and has hardened his stance on immigration.
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. Eric Cantor's position on immigration remains consistent."
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.
Boehner is viewed as an ally by immigration advocates, based partly on his ties to the business community, which supports overhauling immigration laws. Boehner also has said repeatedly in public and in private that he wants to deal with the immigration issue.
Cantor, on the other hand, is seen as reluctant. According to Heye, Cantor hasn't weighed in on the question of whether Republicans must support immigration reform in order to ensure the GOP's viability as a political party — a position that's become an article of faith with establishment Republicans such as Boehner.
And Cantor has ties to tea party lawmakers whose support might be helpful if he does one day seek the speakership. These conservatives largely oppose immigration legislation.
Boehner earlier this month refused to commit to serving another full term as speaker, but Heye denied Cantor was eyeing the speakership in making decisions. "He's running for re-election as majority leader and we've not said anything more than that," said Heye.