The Latest Battleground for Immigration Reform Lies Within the Military

A proposal to let dreamers enlist in the military, and get legal status, has stalled in Congress.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) joins a group of military 'DREAMers', undocumented youth who aspire to serve the United States in uniform but are prohibited from doing due to their immigration status, during a rally in front of the U.S. Captiol May 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
May 21, 2014, 3:41 a.m.

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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