A controversial bill to let unauthorized immigrants serve in the military as a way of obtaining a path to citizenship failed to get traction in the House of Representatives last week as an amendment to a national defense bill. But the attention surrounding the effort points to how the immigration reform debate has shifted in the last few years.
Last year, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) introduced what's known as the ENLIST Act. It proposes amending the U.S. military code to allow young immigrants who arrived in this country by age 15 to serve in the armed forces, in exchange for legal status and a path to citizenship.
Last week, Denham introduced his measure as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act — a move struck down by the House Rules Committee after intense opposition from conservative activists. Still, the bill garnered substantial bipartisan support, with about 50 co-sponsors split almost evenly along party lines.
Immigrant advocates have supported the bill. Last week, several "Military Dreamers" — young unauthorized immigrants who wish to join the military — flew to Washington to lobby for the measure, including 25-year-old Michael Nazario of Phoenix.
"In high school, I was really involved in the Junior ROTC program," Nazario said in a phone interview. "And due to the fact that my mentors were former servicemen, that really gave me the inspiration to want to join the service.”
Nazario has obtained temporary legal status through the federal deferred action program, along with a work permit that allows him to work legally in construction jobs. But he still can't join the Marines as he’d like to – or have a shot at citizenship.
It’s not the first time a military-only legalization bill has surfaced. But it’s the first time one has garnered this much support from immigrant advocates. In 2012, a similar bill called the ARMS Act came and went with little ado — and with far less support from the immigrant rights lobby.
Back then, advocates were still optimistic about a broader legalization plan, says Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis school of law and an expert on immigration policy.
"In the past, there were some Democratic legislators and some immigrant rights groups who said we need across-the-board reform, not piecemeal reform," Johnson said. "I think that’s going a bit by the wayside, because we have been involved in this debate for so long, and people are just looking for some kind of – even if it’s relatively small-scale – relief for some groups of immigrants.”
Denham’s bill could get a vote on the House floor as a stand-alone measure this summer.