The effort is led by Mo Brooks, one of the most vocal critics of immigration reform. | AP Photo
A subset of House conservatives is circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter urging Republican leaders not to include a proposal in the defense authorization bill that would grant legal status to young undocumented immigrants in the military.
The letter, obtained by POLITICO Thursday, says the National Defense Authorization Act should focus on national security policy and “not be used as a vehicle to advance anyone’s controversial immigration views.”
The effort is led by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of the most vocal critics of immigration reform that would include a pathway to legal status or citizenship for current undocumented immigrants. It comes after Breitbart News reported an effort from Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) to include a legalization proposal for so-called Dreamers who serve in the military in the annual defense authorization bill.
By SEUNG MIN KIM and JAKE SHERMAN | 4/3/14 4:42 PM EDT Updated: 4/3/14 6:04 PM EDT
“I oppose using the NDAA to push any immigration agenda,” Brooks wrote in the letter asking colleagues to join his effort. “That is why I ask you to sign a letter to House leadership informing them that you oppose using the NDAA to push an immigration agenda of any kind.
“If immigration legislation is addressed by the House, it should be done so via the proper process, not by attaching it to must pass legislation,” the letter continues.
Denham has been a vocal backer of allowing young undocumented immigrants to eventually obtain legal status through military service. He drafted the so-called ENLIST Act – which stands for “Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training” – that allows immigrants who came here illegally before the age of 15 and who are able to enlist in the military to qualify for permanent residency in the United States.
Despite the fierce pushback from the hard-right lawmakers in the House Republican Conference over Denham’s push, the policy itself is generally non-controversial. Denham’s legislation currently has 42 co-sponsors, including pro-reform Republicans such as Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Devin Nunes of California, as well as conservatives in the conference like South Carolina Reps. Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman who would oversee the NDAA process, also is a co-sponsor, as are 18 House Democrats. When asked Thursday if he had decided to include Denham’s language in the NDAA, McKeon responded: “That’s not how you do it. We have a process. We have subcommittee hearings. We write bills through the subcommittees. I don’t put something in a bill.”
Furthermore, the House Republican leadership’s list of standards for immigration reform, released in January, endorses a chance for legal status and citizenship for children who were brought illegally into the United States by their parents if they meet certain qualifications, as well as serve in the military or get a college degree.
Still, the push is already triggering backlash. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who had co-sponsored the bill, said in a Facebook post published earlier Thursday that he was withdrawing his support for the legislation. In the six-paragraph statement, Duncan called it “sneaky” to include the measure in the defense authorization bill.
“I was willing to have a conversation about the possibility of allowing some of the children who came here with their parents illegally to earn citizenship through military service,” Duncan wrote. “But that conversation should have been debated as part of a stand-alone bill that could not be conferenced with a broader bill, and then even only after we had made progress on enforcing our current immigration laws.”
A text of the letter addressed to leadership that Brooks is asking members to sign onto asks them to support a bill “containing only defense-related legislation.”
“We were surprised to learn that some of our House colleagues seek to include all or part of the ENLIST Act in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA),” says the letter, which is addressed to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “The ENLIST Act, which grants illegal aliens citizenship if they enlist in the armed forces, is an immigration issue and does not belong in the NDAA.”
“This effort to shift the immigration debate to the NDAA and the House Armed Services Committee is improper and undermines Congress’ ability to properly debate immigration issues,” the letter adds.
Trying to include the ENLIST Act in the authorization bill, which sets defense policy, is not a new maneuver. Denham made an attempt to attach the legislation as an amendment to last year’s authorization measure, but it was ultimately withdrawn.
Denham is also a co-sponsor of a comprehensive immigration reform bill spearheaded by House Democrats, although the sophomore House Republican has declined to sign a discharge petition that would force a vote on that legislation. Doing so would be considered a breach of party loyalty, and success on the Democratic-led effort is a long shot at best.
A spokeswoman for Denham declined to comment on the letter. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to hold a markup on the defense authorization bill on May 7, with full floor consideration later that month.