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Cantor's Defeat Could Put Immigration Reform in Obama's Court

The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was quickly interpreted by national media as a signal that immigration reform was dead on arrival. But for immigration reform advocates, the strategy has not changed.
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The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was quickly interpreted by national media as a signal that immigration reform was dead on arrival. But for immigration reform advocates, the strategy has not changed and hope for reform is not dead: It may just be in the hands of President Obama.

Advocates have long been pressuring Obama to take executive action on immigration reform. But Obama was still holding out the possibility that the House might vote on it this summer; his recent delay of the review of deportations was an attempt to give the House time to act.

Now Cantor's defeat to Tea Party-backed David Brat could send House Republicans running from the issue, and make an executive action by the president the last chance for reform.

Which, ironically, Virginia voters might not be opposed to.

A poll by Public Policy Polling on Tuesday found that among Republican registered voters in Cantor's district, 70 percent support immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring those here illegally, and allow undocumented residents without criminal backgrounds to gain legal status.

Support for immigration reform in the short-term isn't necessarily a dangerous position for the GOP either. After all, another Republican who is much less ambiguous in his support of immigration reform, Lindsey Graham, won a decisive victory in South Carolina.

More importantly, the long-term health of the party is at stake: Should the GOP use this as a reason not to take action, voters will remember who killed immigration reform.

Many political analysts are contending that Cantor's defeat was more of a referendum on Cantor himself, calling him a candidate who had lost touch with his district. It's also possible that his district lost touch with the rest of Virginia.

A map by the New York Times of Virginia's 7th Congressional District shows that Cantor won the more diverse counties near Washington and lost the largely white suburbs around Richmond. Brat won in the less diverse counties of Hanover and New Kent.

Overall, the state of Virginia is in the midst of massive demographic shifts. According to a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress, Virginia has reached a demographic tipping point in which people of color are becoming the majority.

Since 2000, 76 percent of Virginia's population growth has come from immigrant and minority communities. One in 10 residents of the state is an immigrant, with the majority from Asia (40 percent) or Latin America (36 percent). Between 2000 and 2010, the Latino population alone increased by 92 percent. And immigrant and minority residents in Virginia overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

These demographic shifts may already have played a role in political battles over immigrants in Virginia, from the 2007 Prince William County measure that instructed police to obtain the legal status of all arrestees to more recent attempts to pass an anti-immigration law in the style of Arizona or Alabama.

Whether these demographic changes played a role in the political outcome of Tuesday's primary is unknown.

But it wouldn't be the first time demographics informed politics. Twenty years ago in California -- as that state was experiencing its own massive demographic changes -- voters passed Proposition 187, the ballot measure that sought to prohibit undocumented immigrants from using social services. Prop 187 helped get its supporter, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, elected. But it led to an even bigger backlash against the GOP: It is largely credited with the mobilization of Latino voters who have changed the face of California politics. They didn't forget which party backed the measure. With the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, no Republican has since been elected governor in California.

Perhaps that is a lesson Virginians this week can take from California's Prop 187. The backlash to changing demographics may help get your candidate elected, but watch out for the backlash to the backlash.

Even if Cantor's defeat is purely a referendum on him as a candidate, this week's upset has an enormous impact on the future of immigration reform. If Republican leaders are afraid to act, immigration advocates move on to the second step in their plan: If Congress doesn't act, Obama must.

And if Republicans misread the Virginia primary as a referendum on immigration reform, it will be their loss.