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Digging up Eric Cantor’s immigrant ancestry

How did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s forebears end up in America? The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, an assemblage of liberal-leaning groups, has some answers.

The roundtable is querying lawmakers about their immigrant ancestors for its “A Congress of Immigrants” campaign, part of its effort to get Congress to advance immigration reform.

The second page of a document produced by the roundtable features quotes from six lawmakers: Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the House. Five of the featured lawmakers identify as Jewish, and the other, Ros-Lehtinen, is a Cuban-born Christian with Jewish ancestry.

Each poignantly describes the immigrant experience of his or her antecedents.

Except, read the tiny print beneath Cantor’s quote: His words are from a past interview, not one — as the others are — from responses provided to the roundtable. Cantor actually declined to provide answers to the roundtable’s queries.

The next five pages of the roundtable’s document features answers provided by the other five lawmakers regarding their ancestors’ immigrant experiences. Then the final page answers some of the same questions for Cantor through the roundtable’s own research into Census and other public documents. The flyer explains:

Judging by the number of siblings (at least 4) that immigrated to the United States in the span of just a few years, it would probably be challenging for Cantor’s Lithuanian ancestors to immigrate in the same fashion today. Under the current system of laws, an American citizen’s Lithuanian sibling faces an estimated 12 years to immigrate to the U.S.

Why would the roundtable take such initiative to research the Cantor family tree? Because it wants to noodge Cantor into advancing immigration reform this Congress.

It’s not crazy for the roundtable to see Cantor as a potential supporter of reform. However polarized Congress is, this is one area where Cantor sees a possibility for bipartisan agreement.

But is it fair to bring Cantor’s Jewishness into the roundtable’s materials when he declined to participate? (Abby Levine, the roundtable’s director, told me that Cantor was not given a heads-up that his past comments and family history would be used in the campaign.)

I posed the question to Hadar Susskind, who heads the D.C. office of Bend the Arc, one of the roundtable’s 26 constituent members.

“He has said positive things about immigration reform and positive things about the Jewish immigration experience,” Susskind told me. “If he puts himself out there like that, if he wants to keep that cycle of opportunity going in America, to call on him to demonstrate leadership for, that is fair.”

The roundtable has made an issue of Cantor’s heritage in their campaign. Here’s a quote from one roundtable email blast, which twice mentions Cantor’s Jewishness:

“Americans in both parties want to do this and they know that we need to do this,” said Hadar Susskind, Director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. “It’s only an extremist minority that is blocking action, and we’re calling on Cantor to listen to his nationwide Jewish constituency and stand up to them.”

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