By Donna Cassata
WASHINGTON: Stymied on comprehensive immigration overhaul, House Republicans are pushing a plan to give young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents a path to resident status if they join the U.S. military.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham said Friday he would press for a vote on his legislation, known as the ENLIST Act, either as a free-standing bill or as an addition to the defense authorization measure that the House will consider in May. The Californian from a competitive, increasingly Hispanic district is one of a handful of GOP proponents of reform whose hopes for a vote have been quashed this election year.
“This is a way to improve our national security,” Denham said in arguing for his legislation.
Denham immediately faced a concerted effort from conservative opponents to scuttle his move. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., circulated a letter among his colleagues opposing any attempt to add immigration legislation to the defense bill. His intent was to collect as many signatures as possible and deliver the letter to House leadership.
Brooks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, vowed to challenge any move on immigration, either when the committee writes its bill on May 7 or on the House floor.
“If another member tries to give illegal aliens preferential treatment and put them on equal footing with American citizens for jobs in the military, I will fight it and all hell will break loose,” Brooks said in an interview.
In a blow to Denham, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee — and fellow Californian — said that he would not include the immigration legislation in his initial version of the defense bill. Republican Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who is a co-sponsor of Denham’s legislation, said the defense bill should not be the original venue for an immigration debate.
McKeon, who has announced plans to retire at the end of his term, would prefer to avoid any controversial issue that could undermine speedy passage of his last defense bill, according to congressional aides. The measure that sets policy for the Pentagon and military traditionally enjoys strong bipartisan support and has cleared Congress every year for the last half century, a rare occurrence in the deeply divided legislature.
Denham is not a member of Armed Services, but his is working with Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who is, and several other Republicans on the issue. Coffman could try to force a committee vote to add the immigration legislation.
The latest maneuvering comes as the comprehensive, Senate-passed bill that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and tightens border security remains stalled in the House.
Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, and other GOP leaders unveiled a set of immigration principles in January, but rank-and-file members balked at moving ahead on any legislation in an election year. Boehner attributed the GOP roadblock to a collective distrust of President Barack Obama to enforce any new laws.
House Republicans want to avoid a divisive immigration fight that could anger their core voters, especially with an improving outlook for the November midterms.
The GOP hopes to increase its majority in the House and possibly win control of the Senate.