As the debate over immigration rages in Washington DC, a new controversy has broken out over a specific group of undocumented immigrants who broadly considered to be the most sympathetic subset of the over 11 million people who are in the United States illegally: those who qualify for the DREAM Act (which means they came to the United States illegally as children, graduated from high school and lived in the United States continuously for years) who volunteer to serve in the military. The controversy over a path to citizenship for this small group shows how bitterly opposed to immigration reform some House Republicans are.
The fight almost held up the National Defense Authorization Act last week, the bill that sets the budget for all aspects of the United States military. Rep. Jeff Denham, a second-term Republican congressman from California’s Central Valley tried to slip this provision into the budget bill last week. Denham is one of the few Republicans to openly embrace a pathway to citizenship for undocumented aliens and has previously sponsored his proposed amendment in a standalone bill called the Enlist Act.
News of the maneuver though sparked an immediate outcry from conservative immigration hawks within the GOP. Rep. Steve King raged that this would allow illegals to “smuggle themselves into the military.” Instead, in King’s opinion, “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. That’s the law.”
King’s views towards the bill were shared by Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, who had his own worries about the loyalties of those undocumented immigrants who might join the military “How do you ensure that illegal aliens are loyal to America and not another country? Is it wise to entrust illegal aliens with questionable loyalties with America’s military secrets and weapons, including weapons of mass destruction?”
The resulting conservative outcry spiked an effort to add the measure to the bill through the committee process. On Friday, California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said that he would block efforts to add the provision to the NDAA during committee hearings because he didn’t feel it was the appropriate place for the debate. However, Denham has said he will still try to amend the bill on the floor of the House.
The entire kerfuffle shows the straits that House Republicans are in on immigration reform. There is no possible immigration plan that 218 Republican members of Congress could unite behind. When the House GOP leadership even hinted at a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants in January, many backbench Republicans went ballistic at the perceived betrayal.
The result leaves Republicans in a bind. The lack of action on immigration continues to fester for the GOP, which was greatly hurt among Hispanic voters in 2012 as a result, particularly among first and second generation Mexican-Americans.
But a plan that was too bold and liberal might alienate base Republican voters opposed to amnesty and concerned about rewarding lawbreakers. The result is a conundrum for the Republican Party where there is no clear middle ground. It’s clear though, from the showdown last week, it will be an uphill battle to put even a select handful of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.