How strongly does one Republican congressman feel about creating a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military? He’s willing to do the unthinkable for many in his conference: allow the Obama administration to take action if a legislative effort fails.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) spoke at a press conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday, saying he would “welcome” a policy change from the Department of Defense allowing young undocumented immigrants to serve in the military.
“I think the D.o.D. has the ability to do this today,” he said. “And if the military takes the position that they want the best and brightest, and these men and women meet that criteria, then I think it’s something the Department of Defense is willing and able to do.”
That’s a rare stance among House Republicans when it comes to immigration policy. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill nearly a year ago, but similar legislation has languished in the House. Republicans say they can’t trust President Obama to enforce existing immigration law and don’t want to debate new legislation until their confidence is restored.
With debate closed on a large-scale immigration overhaul, Denham has pursued a smaller measure, the ENLIST Act. The bill would allow immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to serve in the military and become legal permanent residents — a step toward citizenship — in return. Denham is hoping that the measure can be added as an amendment to a larger bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
Republican leadership, however, hasn’t back the effort so far. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) blocked the measure from being added to the defense spending bill last week. Cantor backed a similar proposal months ago, but he faces a primary challenge in coming weeks from a Tea Party candidate who has criticized him for not being tough enough on immigration.
Although leadership shot down the amendment, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that there have been discussions about holding a vote on Denham’s bill as a stand-alone measure.
Denham, for his part, is also running for reelection, but in a heavily Hispanic district where an immigration policy like this would likely help his cause.
The immigration proposal was set to be debated in the House today, where a committee will decide which amendments will be included in the spending bill.
Denham appeared at the press conference with Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), a fellow Republican, as well as Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) and Joaquin Castro (Texas). The members were joined by more than a dozen young people who are interested in joining the military, but barred because of their immigration status.
Hassan Quiz, a 23-year-old line cook from Phoenix, Arizona, came to Washington to call on Congress to allow undocumented immigrants to serve in the military. He was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was nine months old, before he knew how to walk.
Quiz now has a family of his own, including a young daughter. He sees the military as a career and stays in shape with the hope that the opportunity will present itself soon.
“It would be an honor to wear the uniform of a military personnel,” he said. “It’s always been a dream of mine and I continue to dream that.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.