The Latest Battleground for Immigration Reform Lies Within the Military

Protestors called for reform of the immigration system march on Capitol Hill in October. Protestors called for reform of the immigration system march on Capitol Hill in October. Carolyn Kaster/A

This is how difficult it is to get any sort of immigration-related legislation through the GOP-controlled House: A Republican-authored bill to allow "dreamers" to enlist in the military and also qualify for legal status is being blocked.

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California has been lobbying to get a vote on his proposal, the Enlist Act, which is cosponsored by 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans, including Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner said "there have been discussions" but "no decisions" on whether to allow a stand-alone vote on the measure.

Denham had initially tried to get the proposal through via the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass defense bill. GOP leadership killed that idea Friday and on Tuesday night it was blocked in the House Rules Committee from coming to the floor as an amendment to the bill.

"We have supported it in the past, but trying to do this on the national defense authorization bill seems to us to be an inappropriate place to do it," Boehner said earlier in the day.

The legislation would allow those who were brought to the U.S. illegally before 2012 and were younger than 15 at the time (known as "dreamers") to enlist in the military and gain permanent legal status. Upon honorable discharge, such service members would then be eligible to apply for citizenship.

To drum up support for the measure, Denham, along with Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Joaquin Castro, held a press conference Tuesday during which undocumented youth discusses their high grades, their experience with military programs like high school ROTC, and their desire to enlist in the military.

"My dream was, I'm going to serve in the military," said Abraham Diaz, who was brought to the U.S. as a child by his family. "We want to serve our country. This is has been our country."

And once again, while advocates want Congress to pass immigration-related legislation, they are increasingly looking to the White House to step in and take executive action. The Homeland Security Department is reviewing its deportation policy and should announce the results of that review soon. The Pentagon is also weighing a change to allow some undocumented immigrants to enlist in the military, which would essentially mirror Denham's proposal.

"The Department of Defense has the ability to do this today, and if the military takes the position that they want the best and brightest, and these men and women meet the criteria, then I think it's something that the Department of Defense is willing and able to do," Denham said.

Denham, a vocal supporter of comprehensive immigration reform who represents a district with a large Hispanic population, has faced fierce conservative opposition on and off the Hill for his bill. Heritage Action pledged to key-vote the National Defense Authorization Act if it included language about dreamers.

Conservative Republicans, who opposed including the Enlist Act in NDAA, circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter, and said such a provision amounted to amnesty. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a cosponsor of the Enlist Act,  eventually pledged to not include the proposal in the underlying bill text, for fear that it would become a poison pill.

Denham turned his efforts this month to get the bill through as an amendment on the defense bill, which would have forced lawmakers to go on the record about the proposal. The office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor shot that down on Friday. "No proposed ENLIST amendments to NDAA will be made in order," a Cantor spokesman had said in a statement.

Denham said he was surprised by that move. "The statement came from staff, so I'm still looking for a reason," he said. 

Cantor has previously echoed support for a path to citizenship for dreamers, but the "Kids Act" that would do just that hasn't materialized.

During Tuesday's Rules Committee hearing, Denham insisted that the measure was germane to the debate around NDAA as a change to military code. He offered the bill as an amendment last year and it was ruled in order then, but he ended up withdrawing it when committee jurisdictional issues arose. He pledged not to withdraw this time around.

"Not only is this an issue of national security and military readiness, but those kids who are here and have gone through our education system, why wouldn't we let the Department of Defense to pick the best and brightest?" Denham said. "I believe in earned citizenship, but there's no better way to show your patriotism, your commitment, your sacrifice, and the willingness to earn your citizenship than a willingness to serve in our military."

Changing immigration policy to benefit dreamers has become one of the few legislative areas that inspires strong bipartisan support. Combine that with military service, and it would seem that getting support for legal status shouldn't be all that tough. After all, quite a few lawmakers from both parties have signed onto Denham's bill.

But this latest showdown underscores the difficulties in the House to do pass any legislation related to immigration this year, particularly when it comes to allowing a path to legalization or citizenship.

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