Defying Leadership, House Republican Files Measure To Allow Undocumented Immigrants To Serve In Military

Undocumented immigrants are hoping that Congress would give them a chance to enlist in the military. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee
Undocumented immigrants are hoping that Congress would give them a chance to enlist in the military. CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) is nearly always the first Republican to come out for some kind of immigration reform. He was the first House Republican to sign on to the House Democrats’ immigration bill that includes a pathway to citizenship. He was also the first House Republican to visit immigration advocates fasting for 22 days on Capitol Hill. And on Monday, Denham again became the first House Republican to formally file three amendments that would address undocumented immigrants in the military in a national defense policy bill. The jointly filed amendments by Denham and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) include the ENLIST Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrants to serve in the military and grant them an eventual pathway to citizenship.

The House Rules Committee will decide on Tuesday whether the measure would be considered as an amendment prior to the consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on the House floor. Denham said that his measure would be “a change to military code, not immigration law. … The ENLIST Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism — serving their county — to earn legal status. As a veteran, I can think of no better way to demonstrate your commitment to our nation.”

Denham’s press release urged his colleagues to allow undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to serve in the military. He also dismissed five “common misconceptions about the ENLIST Act”: that immigrants would be incentivized to come to the United States (his bill would only apply to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country before 2011); that immigrants would serve only until they received legal permanent residence status (under his bill, immigrants have to serve out the term of their enlist contracts in order to receive the status); that immigrants do not have America’s best interests at heart (on this point, Denham praised immigrant veteran colleagues who served with him during his 16 years in the Air Force); that immigrants shouldn’t be rewarded to serve the country (Denham argued that these undocumented immigrants were brought into the country as children and should not be faulted for the actions of their parents); and that undocumented immigrants would be prioritized to enlist over Americans (his bill would not be a guarantee of enlistment).

When Denham introduced the ENLIST Act in the NDAA last June, the bill garnered 26 Democratic and 24 Republican co-sponsors. He withdrew the amendment and didn’t seek a recorded vote after a “jurisdictional scuffle” with House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), according to Roll Call. Recently, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s spokesman told Politico that the ENLIST Act would not be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and that it also would not be taken as a stand-alone vote. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) has also expressed his opposition to attaching the bill to the NDAA. He was an original co-sponsor of the ENLIST Act when it was ruled in order last year. Cantor has said in the past that he would support a measure that would grant some kind of legal status to undocumented children brought to the country by their parents.

Earlier on Monday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-CA) spent more than two hours pushing for a similar, if narrower proposal, at a hearing at a military academy in Chicago. At the hearing held at the Phoenix Military Academy, titled “Immigrant Enlistment: A Force Multiplier for the U.S. Armed Forces,” Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) called on Congress to allow some undocumented immigrants who were granted temporary legal presence under a presidential initiative to serve in the military and become eligible for eventual citizenship. Gutierrez argued, “Allowing these young patriots to enlist is vital to our national interest because it enhances the military’s cultural expertise and diversifies the pool of well-educated applicants for recruitment across the board.”

A Center for Naval Analyses study found that non-citizen enlistees were “far more likely to complete their enlistment obligations successfully than their U.S.-born counterparts.” Then Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu said that “one of the benefits of recruiting noncitizens… is to be able to have a more diverse, and specifically, a linguistically more competent military force than we could otherwise recruit.”

While Denham’s ENLIST Act is a step forward in moving away from the anti-immigration sentiment flouted by his party, he also has yet to sign a procedural move, known as a discharge petition, that would force a vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.