As the House and Senate Armed Services Committees consider their respective versions of the military budget this week, a little known and controversial immigration proposal has put the two groups on a collision course.
The ENLIST Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants permanent residency if they enlist and serve in the military, will be considered on Tuesday by the House Armed Services Committee, though it faces powerful opposition from conservative advocacy groups that have said the fight over the act is one “for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project, a Republican advocacy group, said.
"The ENLIST Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism -- serving their country -- to earn legal status," Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who introduced the bill last June, said in a statement on Monday. "As a veteran, I can think of no better way to demonstrate your commitment to our nation. It’s a change to military code, not immigration law."
The act aims to allow immigrants who arrived in the United States on or before Dec. 31, 2011 and who were younger than 15-years old at the time to become legal, permanent residents if they are military eligible and enlist and serve.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said the ENLIST act won't be debated as part of the defense spending legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), leading some to assume it is already dead in the water. But Denham, joined by co-sponsor, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), filed a scaled-back version of the bill anyway on Monday.
At the heart of the act is the Republican Party's development of platforms aiming to help its candidates capture a minority electorate that has slipped from its grasp in recent years. The GOP is particularly targeting Hispanic voters who it will likely need if it hopes to win the 2016 presidential election.
"House Republican leadership is just desperate to pass some form of amnesty before November elections," Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Washington-based nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told the International Business Times. "And nothing is ever dead on these issues. Each of these bills is always in a suspended state of animation."
The bill was co-sponsored by 26 Democrats and 24 Republicans in the House, increasing the chances it would gain majority approval if it went to a final vote. But a minority of dissenting Republicans is expected to attempt to block the amendment before it makes it to the floor, Horowitz said.
“We must make it clear to Members of Congress that if amnesty is slipped into the NDAA, especially at a time when Obama is nullifying the rule of law, they must oppose the procedural rule to consider the bill,” he added.
Denham said he would seek a vote on his ENLIST act last year but withdrew it after Judiciary chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) claimed jurisdiction over immigration issues. This year, Denham has said he won’t be so accommodating.
Should the ENLIST act not make it through the House Rules Committee on Tuesday, all eyes will be on the Democrat-majority Senate, where the bill will be factored into the standing $600 billion budget that they will propose.
If that passes, the House and Senate would have to go into conference to solve their differences within the bill, a process that takes the Senate and House version of the NDAA with the aim of crafting legislation acceptable to both that can be submitted to the president.
"If it's not in the House bill and it's not in the Senate bill, then legislatively speaking, that could cause a problem," a spokesperson from the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
If the Senate and House can't come to an agreement, it would be the first time in 54 years that the bodies were unable to do so.