RICHMOND, Va. — Political forces from the left and the right gathered at the Virginia state Capitol Wednesday with a shared objective: Ratchet up the immigration pressure on Eric Cantor.
On one side were the pro-immigration activists — led by an Illinois Democrat — calling for the House majority leader to at least allow legislation an up-or-down vote. On the other was a political rival all-too-ready to hang the word "amnesty" around the Virginia Republican's neck.
In the middle of the debate, walking a political tightrope with less than two weeks to go before a closely-watched primary and as the clock steadily ticks down on the 113th Congress, is Cantor.
"We have come here to say ... stop being an obstacle. Stop standing in the way," said Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., a leader in the national fight to pass an immigration overhaul bill who was invited to speak at Wednesday's event by the group CASA de Virginia. "Become a hero of our community and become someone who can help the tens of thousands of Virginians who need help because of this broken immigration system."
Half an hour earlier, Cantor's June 10 primary opponent David Brat held a brief outdoor news conference on the steps of the building, where he had a different perspective on Cantor.
"Eric Cantor has been the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty," Brat told a half-dozen reporters. "Eric Cantor has spearheaded the amnesty push in the House. ... There is no Republican in this country who is more liberal on immigration than Eric Cantor."
Conservatives' biggest turncoat? Immigration's most stubborn opponent?
It wouldn't seem Cantor could be both, but the No. 2 Republican in the House has tripped alarms on both sides of the sprawling, complicated and emotional debate in recent weeks. Cantor was once considered an advocate for passing a comprehensive rewrite of the immigration code. He spoke in support of legislation to prevent deportations of the so-called DREAMers — young illegal immigrants who in many cases were brought into the country by their parents — and was said to be working on a "KIDS Act" with Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., He helped draft House GOP principles earlier this year meant to guide the chamber's approach to an immigration overhaul.
Then, last week, Cantor blocked consideration of an amendment to the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that he said he supported in the past. The amendment would have provided a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military.
And, this spring, as part of its efforts to fend off a primary challenge from the right, Cantor's own re-election campaign sent out mailers touting his conservative credentials in "stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty" which would "ignore the rule of law in this country and reward people for illegal behavior."
The rhetoric is more politically loaded than typical for Cantor and other members of House GOP leadership, who have been trying to promote a kinder, gentler Republican Party ahead of the midterms and, more significantly, the 2016 presidential election.
But Gutiérrez on Wednesday brushed aside Cantor's harsher tone of recent weeks and reminded the crowd in Richmond — many of whom were Cantor's constituents — that the powerful Republican has the ability to be helpful on immigration if he puts aside anxieties about the political consequences.
"What Eric Cantor represents is the future of the Republican Party," Gutiérrez told the 70-some people assembled at the Capitol, cautioning that the GOP could become irrelevant if Cantor and others don't act to pass legislation to benefit the burgeoning Latino voting bloc.
Brat, meanwhile, said Cantor was desperately trying to appeal to hard-line conservative voters ahead of the primary, and he even accused Gutiérrez of being "in cahoots" with Cantor in holding an event in Richmond "to set up a great deception that will allow Eric Cantor to claim he is opposed to amnesty, at the eleventh hour."
Cantor's campaign spokesman, Ray Allen, disputed accusations of inconsistency: "Gutiérrez, from his point of view, has a legitimate beef with Eric Cantor because he blocked the Senate's amnesty bill; David Brat is just lying," he told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview.
Scrutiny over Cantor's position on immigration at this stage in the game comes as stakeholders are watching whether President Barack Obama acts, as he has promised he will, unilaterally to curb deportations should Congress prove unwilling or unable to act on its own.
The dueling press events on Wednesday came one day after news broke that Obama would delay releasing a report by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson detailing actions the president could take to stop certain deportations. Instead, the White House, fearing that executive orders would alienate GOP lawmakers already criticizing Obama for undermining the legislative branch, will give House Republicans until August to advance an immigration overhaul measure on their own.
The White House decision to wait sparked outcry from immigrant activists outside Capitol Hill, and Gutiérrez on Wednesday also expressed frustration.
Gutiérrez, who has not shied away from criticizing Obama for his deportation policies or from taking his own party to task for not acting on immigration when they had a super-majority in the House, Senate and White House, called the delay a "mistake."
He spoke to reporters and advocates while flanked by over a dozen supporters holding signs that read, "Eric Cantor: The One Man Blocking Immigration Reform." Several women brought their young children with them, some of whom wore T-shirts that read, "Don't Deport my Mom."
At least three women in attendance were facing deportations, with one facing a deadline of June 6 to leave the country. A 26-year-old mother of a son and daughter who are both U.S. citizens, she said she had been discovered as undocumented last winter while she was driving a car without a license. She, and a few others, were wearing thick court-ordered ankle bracelets to track their whereabouts, which they hid from view under the hems of their pants.
Delaying the release of the Homeland Security report and taking some of the pressure off Obama to stop deportations, Gutierrez said, "denies the ability of people in this room to fight the deportations. There are orders of deportations against people in this room in the coming weeks, in the coming days.
"They don't have time for Eric Cantor," Gutierrez said, his voice rising, "and the Republican majority, to finally give it a vote. We need to fight the deportations each and every day."