Cantor: Immigration Reform Should Start with the Children

by Patrick Brennan

This past Sunday on Meet the Press, David Gregory asked House majority leader Eric Cantor about his immigration-related comments in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last week. In the speech, Cantor said, “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.” Gregory asked Cantor, “are you changing your position, are you moving to the middle — are you willing to go all-in to bring conservatives to the table to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here?”

Cantor explained that the current problem has been facing the country for at least “ten years now,” and politicians have been “unable to find any common ground.” He explained that, as he said at AEI, “the best place to start [is] with children” who “through no fault of their own have been brought here.” Gregory continually asked Cantor whether he would support a broader amnesty with a pathway to citizenship, saying “if you went all-in, you could bring along the Right in the House, couldn’t you?” but the congressman demurred, emphasizing that he would like to see the status of children brought here illegally addressed first.

Cantor seems, then, to be endorsing some limited form of the DREAM Act (which offers amnesty to those who were brought into the U.S. before their 16th birthdays — Cantor’s repeated use of “children” might suggest a lower limit); he said he agrees with that bill’s “underlying principles.” This has been widely remarked upon as a shift for Cantor, who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, but there may also be something else important going on here: with immigration-policy discussion clearly going to dominate Congress for the near future, Cantor isn’t just supporting a specific policy, he also seems to be endorsing a certain approach to legislation.

He wasn’t saying he supports DREAM-type legislation just because he believes in it (though his AEI and MTP remarks suggest he does), but also because such a bill represents “a place where all of us can come together” on immigration as an alternative to a sweeping bipartisan grand bargain that amnesties many more illegal immigrants in exchange for stiffer enforcement.

Saying things like “let’s get that [bill] under our belt” suggests that Cantor would like to see House Republicans’ approach to immigration reform (especially that of the caucus’s conservatives) de-emphasize their opposition to an omnibus amnesty-and-enforcement bill, and prioritize instead their support for certain limited reform measures, of which the DREAM Act is just one.

This is an approach that Mark Krikorian has mentioned on a number of occasions, both here on NRO and in a debate at the National Review Institute summit, facing off against pro-amnesty-enforcement-deal Hugh Hewitt. He asserts that the deal makes sense in a situation in which the two sides of the issue have extremely low levels of trust in each other — I happen to think his analogy to the Middle East conflict is particularly interesting: 
Neither side trusts the other. In the case of immigration the sides are not really the Republicans and the Democrats, but rather our pro-amnesty, post-American elites, on the one hand, and the public, on the other. The public doesn’t believe the elites accept Israel’s right to exist America’s right to enforce its sovereignty, and the elites don’t believe the public will abandon the settlements its opposition to amnesty. So a limited deal, that gives each side a little of what they want, is more viable and might then serve as the basis for further action in the future.
Krikorian has laid out a specific example of what such a small deal could look like: a narrow DREAM Act in exchange for universal E-Verify for new but not existing hires. I have no idea if Cantor is envisioning anything like that, but nonetheless, he seems to be suggesting that small reforms might be an effective and sensible counter to the “grand bargain” that both parties’ leadership seems to consider the only way forward on immigration.

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