By Donna Cassata
WASHINGTON: A House chairman said Thursday that supporters are making headway in garnering support for a bill to give young immigrants brought to the country illegally a path to resident status through the military.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said the chief supporter of the ENLIST Act, Rep. Jeff Denham, faces some procedural hurdles in making the legislation part of the annual defense policy bill, but is rounding up votes for his effort. Adding it to the defense bill would expedite the immigration measure.
“Nothing is ever easy,” McKeon told a handful of reporters at a round table discussion. “He’s working hard on his bill.”
Comprehensive immigration legislation has stalled in the House 10 months after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and tighten border security. Republicans remain wary of voting on the divisive issue, which could anger their core voters and undercut potential electoral gains in the November elections.
Several conservative lawmakers, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., among them, have vowed to fight any effort to add the Denham bill on immigration to the defense measure. The House is expected to consider the defense bill in May.
McKeon issued a statement last week saying the immigration measure wouldn’t be in his core committee bill. However, that doesn’t preclude an effort to force a vote in the full House on what might be the only immigration vote this election year.
McKeon said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had made a pledge to Denham last year to help him. Denham abandoned an attempt last year to add his measure to the defense bill.
Denham’s bill, which has the support of 47 Republicans and Democrats, would allow immigrants who were brought to this country on or before Dec. 31, 2011, and were younger than 15 years old to become legal, permanent residents through honorable service in the military.
McKeon, who is among the co-sponsors, has announced his retirement and said he would like to see swift passage of his last defense policy bill. He has helped shepherd the legislation through Congress in previous years.
He said he was not concerned that attaching the immigration bill would jeopardize the defense policy bill.
Denham argued that last week, opponents who have never served in the armed forces lack an understanding of the contributions of immigrants to the military.
“I know there are a lot of members that have never worn the cloth of our nation like I have, but you’re seeing more and more men and women that are on this floor who have served their country that understand that we have immigrants that have served in our military side by side with us,” said the California Republican, who served in the Air Force.
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.