By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON (AP) - Stymied on comprehensive immigration overhaul, House Republicans are pushing a plan to give young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents a path to resident status if they join the U.S. military.
Rep. Jeff Denham said Friday he would press for a vote on his legislation, known as the ENLIST Act, either as a free-standing bill or as an addition to the defense authorization measure that the House will consider in May. The Californian from a competitive, increasingly Hispanic district is one of a handful of GOP proponents of reform whose hopes for a vote have been quashed this election year.
"This is a way to improve our national security," Denham told reporters in arguing for his legislation.
Denham immediately faced a concerted effort from conservative opponents to scuttle his move. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., circulated a letter among his colleagues opposing any attempt to add immigration legislation to the defense bill. His intent was to collect as many signatures as possible and deliver the letter to House leadership.
Brooks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, vowed to challenge any move on immigration, either when the committee writes its bill on May 7 or on the House floor.
"If another member tries to give illegal aliens preferential treatment and put them on equal footing with American citizens for jobs in the military, I will fight it and all hell will break loose," Brooks said in an interview.
In a blow to Denham, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee - and fellow Californian - said in a statement that he would not include the immigration legislation in his initial version of the defense bill. Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, who is a co-sponsor of Denham's legislation, said the defense bill should not be the original venue for an immigration debate.
McKeon, who has announced plans to retire at the end of his term, would prefer to avoid any controversial issue that could undermine speedy passage of his last defense bill, according to congressional aides. The measure that sets policy for the Pentagon and military traditionally enjoys strong bipartisan support and has cleared Congress every year for the last half century, a rare occurrence in the deeply divided legislature.
Denham is not a member of Armed Services, but his is working with Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who is, and several other Republicans on the issue. Coffman could try to force a committee vote to add the immigration legislation.
The latest maneuvering comes as the comprehensive, Senate-passed bill that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and tightens border security remains stalled in the House.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders unveiled a set of immigration principles in January, but rank-and-file members balked at moving ahead on any legislation in an election year. Boehner attributed the GOP roadblock to a collective distrust of President Barack Obama to enforce any new laws.
House Republicans want to avoid a divisive immigration fight that could anger their core voters, especially with an improving outlook for the November midterms. The GOP hopes to increase its majority in the House and possibly win control of the Senate.
Denham's bill, which has the support of 42 Republicans and Democrats, would allow immigrants who were brought to this country on or before Dec. 31, 2011, and were younger than 15 years old to become legal, permanent residents through honorable service in the military.
Denham argued that opponents who have never served in the armed forces lack an understanding of the contributions of immigrants to the military.
"I know there are a lot of members that have never worn the cloth of our nation like I have, but you're seeing more and more men and women that are on this floor who have served their country that understand that we have immigrants that have served in our military side by side with us," said Denham, who served in the Air Force.
Brooks dismissed that assessment.
"That's bunk. Next question," he told reporters.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., an outspoken immigration overhaul supporter, said he was backing Denham's effort even if it would amount to an incomplete victory. He also disputed the idea that the quick action by conservatives in the caucus to shut Denham down showed that no action on immigration is possible.
"I believe there's still a great deal of support," Gutierrez said. "I say let's have a victory."
Gutierrez contended that without action by the House, Obama will act on his own authority by summer to protect more groups of immigrants from deportation.
Last month, Obama asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review enforcement practices to ease his administration's rate of deportations. Under Obama's leadership, almost 2 million people have been removed from the U.S.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has circulated a draft memorandum of possible recommendations to Johnson, including a proposal similar to Denham's legislation and an expansion of the step Obama took in June 2012 allowing young people who immigrated illegally into the United States - so-called DREAMers - to remain in the country under certain conditions. They take their name from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act, which is stymied in Congress and would provide a way for them to permanently remain in the U.S.
The caucus said that expansion should apply to the parents of the young people.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.