WASHINGTON — House lawmakers and undocumented immigrants rallied Tuesday in front of the Capitol, urging Majority Leader Eric Cantor to drop opposition to a 2015 defense bill amendment granting citizenship to those who live in the country illegally if they serve in the military.
The proposal by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., has won some bipartisan support in the House. But it appears in deep legislative trouble because Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, has said he will block any attempt to add the immigration measure to the must-pass Department of Defense budget bill for the coming year.
Immigrants and supporters say the Enlist Act would provide a path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented residents who were brought to the United States when they were children and now want to serve their country and become legal citizens. The military now bars enlistment by most who do not have a social security number, but the services have leeway on the rule and nearly 3,000 foreign nationals with sought-after language and medical skills have been inducted since 2009.
“These men and women want to serve the only country they know” and a shift in the military enlistment rules should be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, Denham said standing before the Capitol dome with about a dozen undocumented residents.
Abraham Diaz, 20, of San Juan, Texas, said he was 9 years old when he came to the U.S. and has since earned a 4.0 grade point average through high school and college, but his top goal is to serve in the military.
“There are thousands out there who are doing this, who are fighting for this,” he said. “We want this legislation to go on to fulfill these dreams.”
The NDAA is set for a vote on the House floor this week and supporters want a vote on whether to add an amendment to include the immigration reform.
Meanwhile, a companion bill called the Dream Act has been introduced in the Senate by Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who on Monday held a hearing in Chicago to urge Congress to support immigration reform that would allow undocumented residents to serve.
The DOD is also looking at changing military induction rules for undocumented residents without congressional intervention. Officials indicated this week that its current program to allow foreign nationals could be expanded to those in the United States.
On Tuesday, fellow Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado and two Democrats — Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas — stood beside Denham to support the immigration bill.
“With so many youths in our communities encouraged to go down the wrong path, we should encourage the youth who want to go down the right path,” Gutierrez said.
Castro said Congress members have sometimes left candidate positions open at military academies because even high-performing undocumented immigrants cannot be tapped to fill them.
“Congress has a chance to change that this week,” he said.
But Cantor’s office said Friday that the House will not attach an immigration amendment to the defense budget, seriously weakening any chances of Denham’s bill passing the House. Typically, hundreds of amendments are added to the massive piece of legislation but Cantor controls which are considered.
Conservatives have come out hard against Obama Administration efforts at immigration reform. Heritage Action, the influential lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation that keeps scorecards rating lawmakers on conservative values, has been applying pressure to Congress to reject any loosening of the law and specifically targeting the Enlist Act in the House, urging the foundation’s 700,000 members to call their representatives.
The group called the effort to write reform into the defense budget “deplorable” and “simply terrible policy” as interest in the bill ballooned in recent weeks.
“The Enlist Act creates radical and perverse incentives that will have a negative impact on our military and our immigration system,” Heritage Action Chief Executive Officer Michael Needham said in a released statement. “It has no place in a debate over the future of our military, which is currently reducing personnel.”
But the debate may not be over despite the conservative blowback.
The proposal could still be introduced as a stand-alone bill in the House — one not attached to a massive military budget that must be passed, Coffman said.
“I just don’t think this issue is dead,” he said.
Such a bill would face an uphill battle attracting enough Republicans in the GOP-controlled House to pass.