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.
Mr. Coffman said he still may try to offer his policy as an amendment.
"I have not ruled out putting an amendment on the NDAA that would allow these young people the chance to serve this country in uniform and earn a path to citizenship through their military service," said Mr. Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran and member of the committee.
House leaders haven't taken a stand, but one aide said they are comfortable with how Mr. McKeon is handling the debate.
National Guard Association of the United States has backed Mr. Coffman's bill. A spokesman says the association believes it should play a role as Congress debates defense issues this year, particularly because House Republicans are unlikely to move legalization legislation on its own.
"We understand why some believe it could be a distraction, but we continue to believe the bill offers a pathway for immigration that needs to be part of the broader debate," said John Goheen, communications director for the association.
The American Legion, however, said it not want to mix immigration and defense policy and opposes granting citizenship rights to illegal immigrants in the first place.
"The legion's long-standing policy remains that we are opposed to any policy, any legislative action that amounts to amnesty, and I think that would fall under that definition," Mr. Stovall said.
The issue is apparently too hot for some other groups.
Neither Concerned Veterans for America nor Amvets responded to repeated requests for comment. Veterans of Foreign Wars declined to comment.
Mr. Denham's bill would have the military accept illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 15 and who were in the country before 2012.
Mr. Coffman's bill builds off Mr. Obama's 2012 non-deportation policy for "dreamers," the name young illegal immigrants have given themselves. Mr. Coffman's legislation says anyone who receives a work permit under that non-deportation policy can join the military and get in line for citizenship.
That could be even tougher to pass than Mr. Denham's amendment because it would represent an official congressional approval of those non-deportation policies, said Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for NumbersUSA, which advocates a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Whether an amendment could win approval in committee is in doubt. Mr. Coffman's bill doesn't have many Republican co-sponsors, and none of them other than Mr. Coffman is on the committee. Mr. Denham's bill has about a half-dozen Republicans on the committee as co-sponsors, but it's unclear whether they would approve of mixing the immigration debate with the military policy debate.
That likely means the issue ends up back at the feet of House Republican leaders, who eventually have to decide whether to allow a floor debate on the issue.
"I don't know that there would be enough Republicans to pass it in committee. On the floor, that's a whole different thing," Ms. Jenks said. "If Denham insists on offering his amendment on the floor and [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor tells him he can, first of all I think there's a huge bloody fight and it very possibly passes. But all of this depends on, [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob] Goodlatte signing off on the language and Eric Cantor driving it."
Mr. Cantor's office didn't reply to a request for comment.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.