WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Menendez introduced a bill on Thursday that would allow the immigrant parents, spouses and children of active duty military service members to gain legal status, part of a push by Democrats to allow small sectors of the undocumented population to avoid deportation.
"I just can't believe that you can risk your life for America, and America can't let you stay united with your family," the New Jersey Democrat said at a press conference. "It seems to me that's more than a fair trade-off."
The Military Families Act, which so far has zero Republican supporters, would grant legal permanent residence to the immediate family members of military men and women in active duty. Like the DREAM Act, a bill that would grant legal status to immigrants who entered the United States as children if they go to college or join the military, the idea is to narrow the pool of undocumented beneficiaries to the most sympathetic few, in hopes that the GOP will not decry the bill as amnesty.
Menendez already has support in the upper chamber from pro-immigration reform Democrats Harry Reid (Nev.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and New Yorkers Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. He is also circulating the bill to other senators.
Menendez acknowledged the steep uphill climb for immigrant-friendly legislation in this Congress, which so far has passed no bills to expand legal status. In the lame-duck period of the last congressional session, during which Democrats had a larger Senate majority, the DREAM Act was filibustered in a 55-41 vote, with five Democrats breaking with the rest of their party to vote against the bill.
But Menendez asked some legislators on the other side of the aisle to consider supporting the bill because it would benefit the troops. "I am hopeful that we will get some of our Republican colleagues," he said. "It's very limited in scope, it's about military men and women."
He added that the bill could help with recruiting, because people might see it as a way to "serve my country and also save my family." Although Menendez had no numbers for how many his legislation would benefit, he said it would not be "anywhere near" as many people as would be given legal status in other immigration reform bills.
Menendez said the bill could be paired with border enforcement provisions to make it more palatable for Senate Republicans, most of whom argue no undocumented immigrants should be given legal status until border security is strengthened. Senate Democrats may use a similar strategy with the recently reintroduced DREAM Act, which he also supports.
"If they are reasonable in that respect -- and it brings an opportunity for the DREAM Act -- it might be an opportunity, and we'll be pushing for Military Families," Menendez said referring to the possible legislative approach Democrats will take with the bill introduced Thursday.