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GOP infighting threatens another immigration bill

A bill that would provide legal status for some undocumented immigrants who join the military has ignited more internal strife.
Jeff Denham
Rep. Jeff Denham, (R-CA)., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 23, 2013, before the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

Hard-line anti-immigration reform Republicans derailed an effort by a member of their own party to allow men and women brought to the U.S. as children to qualify for Legal Permanent Resident status if they serve in the military.

California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham wanted the House Armed Services Committee to include his proposal, the Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training (ENLIST) Act, in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. After an outcry by conservative Republicans, committee chair Buck McKeon, a fellow California Republican who co-sponsored the original bill, said Friday that he will not include the measure in the defense legislation.

Denham could still introduce the proposal as an amendment, but that path would likely also face fierce opposition.

Denham introduced the bill last year, as Congress tried and eventually failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Since that failure, GOP leaders have promised to act but have not yet unveiled any new plans. Opponents of reform continue to decry any bill that confers legal status on even a small number of undocumented immigrants as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama is circulating a letter opposing Denham’s move to include the ENLIST Act in the next NDAA and suggested that children raised in the United States without legal status might be innately disloyal to their home country. "How do you ensure that illegal aliens are loyal to America and not another country?" Brooks asked. "Is it wise to entrust illegal aliens with questionable loyalties with America's military secrets and weapons, including weapons of mass destruction?"

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King said that instead of allowing young DREAMers to enlist, they should be deported. "As soon as they raise their hand and say, 'I'm unlawfully present in the United States,' we're not going take your oath into the military, but we're going to take your deposition and we have a bus for you to Tijuana," said King. "That's the law."

King has made derogatory comments about young undocumented Latino immigrants in the past. In July 2013, he said that the majority of DREAMers were drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

The ENLIST Act is essentially the position former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took once he backed away from early promises to veto the DREAM Act, the bill that would have given legal status to young people brought to the U.S. as children if they met certain conditions. In a January 2012 primary debate, Romney said he would sign a version of the DREAM Act that focused on military service.

But as members of the GOP fight over whether or not including the ENLIST Act in the NDAA qualifies as a "sneaky" move, as South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan said in a Facebook post announcing he was withdrawing co-sponsorship of the bill, the possibility that Republicans can pass any piece of immigration legislation grows slimmer. Denham's move to advance his bill is the first by a member of that party since the release of new immigration "principles" in January. House Majority Speaker John Boehner has refused to schedule a vote on comprehensive immigration reform, and it is unlikely to advance this year. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he wants to pass legislation that would grant citizenship to men and women brought here as children, but he has proposed nothing.

Denham is a veteran of the Air Force who is also a co-sponsor of the House's version of the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill. He represents a district where some 40% of the population were born outside the U.S. -- one of the highest immigrant populations of any Republican district.