Rep. Jeff Denham has been at odds with his own party’s leadership on immigration reform before, but he's trying again with this Congress, hoping a single comment from the president-elect is a sign his idea might have a chance.
The Turlock Republican wants Congress to allow people who were brought to the country illegally as children to have the option to become citizens through military service.
President-elect Donald Trump made deporting millions of people in the country illegally a central part of his campaign, but during NBC's "Commander in Chief Forum" in September, Trump indicated that immigrants who serve in the U.S. military could possibly be allowed to become legal residents.
"I could see myself working that out, absolutely," Trump said after an audience member asked about the idea. "Military is a very special thing."
Denham was inspired by some of his Desert Storm Air Force comrades who earned their U.S. citizenship through military service, and stories Denham’s grandfather told him about serving with immigrants in World War I. For generations, the U.S. has bestowed citizenship on people in the country legally who are willing to put their lives at risk to serve in the military. So Denham wondered, why not give the same option to people brought to the country illegally as children?
"There’s no greater act of patriotism than being willing to put your life on the line for a country that you love. It will show a great act of patriotism by those kids," Denham said. "Many of our immigrants are really excited to show that patriotism, to show the support of a country that has given them so much."
Trump hasn’t spoken about the topic since, and Denham said he hasn’t talked with the president-elect or members of his upcoming administration about his citizenship idea, which is a step further than the legal residency Trump discussed. But Trump’s tacit interest in military service as a path to legal status was enough to generate interest among some new House members, Denham said.
He filed a fresh bill last week, and as of Wednesday, the bill’s 29 co-sponsors were divided fairly evenly between the parties, with 15 Republicans and 14 Democrats joining Denham. A similar number of co-sponsors have joined Denham in his previous two attempts to pass the bill.
Co-sponsor Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton) has signed onto the bill before, and the former Army captain said it’s an easy bill for him to support.
“If someone wants to serve in our military then they certainly deserve citizenship if they do good, honorable service,” McNerney said. “It opens an option for some of them, a lot of them actually. These are going to be some of the most highly motivated people in our society. Give them a chance.”
Whether the bill will move is unclear. In 2015, House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to hold off on immigration legislation unless a majority of his party supports it, and there’s been little indication of an appetite in the new Congress for tackling the nuances of reforming immigration policy.
For the moment, Denham is focused on building support for his bill, hoping that a forceful showing in the House could propel the bill to the incoming president's desk and be an incentive for him to sign it.
Denham's also hoping the bill can start a bipartisan conversation about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people brought to the country illegally as children, a group commonly called Dreamers.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to see this move forward as a bipartisan issue, that we don’t allow either party to play games and hold up the Dreamers that want to serve,” Denham said.
Denham’s bill would only apply to people brought to the U.S. as children before 2012. They would have to meet all recruitment standards for the branch of the military in which they want to serve, including being proficient in English, having a high school diploma and passing a background check, and would be eligible for citizenship only if they complete the full term of their enlistment contract.
“They are going to our schools, they are learning English, they are graduating from our schools and the question now should be, now what?” Denham said. “Should they be able to get a job? Should they be able to go to college and should they be able to serve the country that they know, the only country they know as home?”
More than 109,000 service members and their families who were already lawful U.S. residents became naturalized U.S. citizens through military service from about 2002 to 2015, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“The timing is right to push it forward. This is our best opportunity to actually move forward with a president that has said encouraging things.”
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