In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. House, some Republicans are pushing for a different path to citizenship – via boot camp.
Undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before 2012 and who were 14 years old or younger would become legal permanent residents upon service in the U.S. military under legislation offered by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA). That provides an expedited path to citizenship compared with the naturalization process. Separation from the military under less-than-honorable conditions would rescind the new residency status.
The fact that a Republican is advocating this approach, and can count several GOP colleagues among the bill’s 43 cosponsors, illustrates the demographic challenges facing the party. Lawmakers with significant Latino populations in states such as California and Florida are seeking incremental changes to the nation’s immigration policies, particularly after House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) balked at taking up an immigration bill passed by the Senate last year.
“It’s not surprising that Republicans would dip their toes in the water with these types of bills,” said Mary Giavagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Council. “There’s overall consensus that people are who are willing to serve their country should be able to have the benefits of citizenship.”
Denham’s measure, also known as the ENLIST Act, is similar to the DREAM Act, which would allow children of undocumented immigrants to attend college in the U.S. along their path to citizenship.
Denham’s measure, which was introduced last year, is back on lawmakers’ radars again as they begin consideration of an annual defense-policy bill, one that Congress has passed for the last 52 years. He offered a similar provision last year as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014. Denham later withdrew the amendment, meaning lawmakers didn’t vote on the matter.
Denham’s bill suffered a brief setback last week, when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) said he wouldn’t include Denham’s provision in the legislation to be considered by the defense panel next month.
“Over the past several days I have heard from Members on and off the committee on both sides of this issue,” McKeon, who’s a cosponsor of Denham’s bill, said in a statement. “They have made sound arguments and raised valid concerns. This is an important issue that I know will continue to be debated going forward.”
Still, Denham has the chance to lobby his fellow committee members before the panel holds its May 7 vote on the measure. If that doesn’t work, he can offer an amendment on the House floor, where it’s likely to garner broader support from lawmakers in both parties.
Some Republicans opposed to the measure said it would diminish the value of U.S. citizenship.
“This bill, this badly named ENLIST Act, would put out the advertisement that says, ‘Sneak into America, sneak into the military and that's going to be the most expeditious path to American citizenship and the whole smorgasbord of benefits that come from American citizenship,’” Rep. Steve King of Iowa said Friday in a speech on the House floor. “Citizenship must be precious, not handed out like candy in a parade.”
The immigration debate is expected to factor into both the November midterm elections and the subsequent White House race in 2016.
Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor and potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination, weighed in on immigration policy during a recent interview with Fox News, revealing views that contrast with most GOP lawmakers.
Speaking about illegal immigrants, Bush said: “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love, it’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that is a different kind of crime, that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
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