Why immigration reform has GOP leaders eating one of their own

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) speaks during a news conference with youths who are unable to serve in the military because they are in the country illegally.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) speaks during a news conference with youths who are unable to serve in the military because they are in the country illegally.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Not only have House Republican leaders ditched a comprehensive immigration overhaul from the Senate, now they are even blocking a more modest effort from one of their own.

House GOP leaders have refused to allow a vote on legislation from Republican Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) that would provide legal status and a path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military.

Last week, Denham tried to attach his bill to the National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping must-pass annual spending bill. But GOP leaders blocked a vote on the amendment. Denham has vowed to try again.


The country has a long history of naturalizing immigrants through military service. In 2002, President George W. Bush expedited citizenship for those who served after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks -- including those here illegally. Since then, the Immigration Policy Center estimates, 53,000 immigrants, those with legal status and not, have obtained citizenship through military service.

Denham, a former Air Force crew chief who served in Desert Storm, argued to his GOP colleagues that he knew many immigrants during his time in the service, and that they served the nation faithfully.

Just as important to Denham, he represents a Central Valley agriculture-heavy district in California that is 40% Latino, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But Denham is a bit of an outlier in the party. Most Republican lawmakers represent districts that have been gerrymandered into conservative strongholds, with few minority populations.

With the upcoming election, party leaders want to protect lawmakers from having to take votes that may be unpopular back home.

Call it the incumbent protection program.

A similar episode unfolded earlier this month in the Senate, where leaders could not agree to vote on the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Some Democrats were less than thrilled to go on the record with an issue that is toxic among environmentalists. And Republicans were loath to give a handful of endangered Democrats, mostly from states that support the pipeline, a chance to demonstrate their party independence by voting in favor of the project.


The protectionist strategy appeared to be at play on the immigration bill this week when both House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made sure Denham’s bill did not become part of the defense bill.

Both leaders have insisted they still support the ENLIST Act, believing that young people in the country illegally, often brought by their parents as children, should be able to pursue legal status if they agree to serve.

“We have supported it in the past,” Boehner said.

But Boehner is not the keeper of the floor schedule. In fact, when pressed later in the week about why he was holding up immigration legislation, almost a year after a bipartisan bill already passed the Senate, the speaker sounded almost incredulous.

“Me?” he protested.

Organizing the floor schedule is a job that largely falls to the majority leader, which is why advocates of immigration reform have increasingly set their sights on Cantor.

The Republican majority leader has his own brewing primary challenge from the right next month, but Cantor has insisted the leadership decision to tank Denham’s bill had less to do with elections than with finding the appropriate venue for the legislation. No decision has been made if Denham’s bill will get a separate vote later, the leaders have said.

None of that has stopped the two-term congressman from pushing his colleagues, as he appeared before the Rules Committee on Tuesday to make his case for his bill.

“There is no better way to show your patriotism,” he said, than serving in the military. And that should offer a route to “earned citizenship.”

Immigration advocates have grown weary of what they see as endless delays in Washington, especially as families are being divided, they say, by the White House’s deportation policies. They have taken their protests to new and different audiences in a plea for support.

For the holiday weekend, a group of law enforcement, business and faith leaders sponsored an ad at the Indianapolis 500, hoping to reach about 300,000 race fans. Their Jumbotron video reads: “No More Excuses.”