The American Legion says it is opposed to trying to tie immigration into the annual defense policy debate, calling it an unacceptable “amnesty” and dealing a serious blow to Republicans desperate to pass some sort of legalization of illegal immigrants ahead of November’s elections.
Several Republicans say they want to attach a small legalization that would grant an explicit chance at citizenship to young illegal immigrants willing to join the military.
But immigration is so combustible as an issue that some defense advocates fear that adding a legalization provision to the National Defense Authorization Act could imperil the rest of the critical work in the defense bill, which sets troop and equipment levels, oversees detainee policy and settles hundreds of other important military issues.
“The NDAA needs to stand alone, and I think attaching an issue as contentious and complex as immigration and recruitment policy would only stall the NDAA,” said John Stovall, director of the American Legion’s national security division. “Immigration policy needs to be debated on its own outside the debate of NDAA.”
The defense policy bill is always an attractive target for add-ons because it is considered the one must-pass piece of policy legislation every year.
Republicans have been looking at the defense bill as other chances for immigration debate have faded.
Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Rep. Jeff Denham of California have filed bills to let some young illegal immigrants join the military and be granted legal permanent residence, labeled as a green card, which is a key step on the pathway to citizenship.
The young illegal immigrants in question are considered among the most sympathetic cases in the immigration debate. Most were brought to the U.S. by their parents, with little say in the matter, and often have no knowledge of their birth countries.
The decisions are freighted with political significance.
Immigrant rights advocates say passing a military legalization bill is the least Republicans can do to make amends for House votes last year to strip illegal immigrants of tax breaks and reverse President Obama’s non-deportation policies.
“Here comes another moment of truth for the House leadership. Will they coddle their Party’s extremists — again — or will they at least try to protect vulnerable members?” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said last week when the debate over immigration and the defense bill was first reported by Breitbart.com.
One key question is how Republicans will proceed.
The House Armed Services Committee will begin debating the defense policy bill at the end of this month and hold a full committee vote May 7.
Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said he will not include legalization in the main bill he introduces, which means it will be up to someone else to offer an amendment in the committee or on the floor.
Those who want a crackdown on illegal immigration consider that a victory because it’s tougher to add language to a bill than remove it.