WASHINGTON -- It's been 11 months since the Senate approved a sweeping immigration overhaul. In the House, meanwhile, comprehensive immigration reform hasn't budged -- and narrow measures aren't getting a chance, either.
On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee blocked three immigrant-related amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, stalling the effort by several Republican and Democratic members to allow undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to enlist in the military. The amendments to the defense spending bill could have served as a chance for the House to vote on a component of immigration reform -- albeit a very narrow one -- after months of talk from leadership about wanting to address the issue.
Supporters of the amendments to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act had hoped they'd found a component of reform that would be relatively non-controversial. Instead, they faced heavy opposition from conservative groups such as Heritage Action. The groups have fought, in particular, the Enlist Act from Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), which would allow some undocumented immigrants to join the military and eventually become eligible for citizenship.
"I believe in earned citizenship," Denham said in defense of his bill at the Rules Committee hearing. "There is no better way to show your patriotism, your commitment, your sacrifice and the willingness to earn that citizenship than being willing to serve in our military."
Other members also proposed immigration-related amendments. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) submitted a separate measure that would grant undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children the ability to join the military. An amendment from Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) would allow so-called Dreamers who were allowed to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to enroll in military academies.
The Rules Committee did not approve any of the three amendments to go to the House floor for consideration. Opponents to the amendments argued they were not sufficiently relevant to the bill.
There were signs before the vote that the amendments would be blocked, but their sponsors tried anyway. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said last week that the Enlist Act would not be debated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said including the measure in the defense bill would be "inappropriate," although he did not rule out a vote on the bill at another time.
"We have supported it in the past, but trying to do this on the National Defense Authorization bill seems to be an inappropriate place to do it," Boehner said.
The situation raises a question: If the House can't vote on allowing young undocumented immigrants to join the military, is there a chance for broader immigration bills?
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, insisted Tuesday before the committee hearing that a delay on the Enlist Act wouldn't mean reform was dead. If anything, he said, the effort shows that GOP members like Denham and Coffman are willing to fight on the issue.
"They won't allow a vote on this today, but the conflict is one that needs to get resolved, and they're going to resolve it in a way that's going to be beneficial to the immigrant community," Gutierrez told HuffPost. "I don't know that there's going to be a vote on the Enlist Act -- I know this is going to lead us to a vote on comprehensive immigration reform."
If Congress does not vote to allow undocumented young people to join the military, President Barack Obama should take administrative action to allow them to enlist, Denham and Gutierrez said. Jessica Wright, a Defense Department official, said Monday that the Obama administration was considering allowing Dreamers to enlist.
"I think the [Department of Defense] has the ability to do this today," Denham said at a press conference Tuesday. "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."
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