House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday that the GOP is discussing whether and how to take up controversial legislation that would give some illegal immigrants legal status in the U.S. if they sign up for the U.S. Armed Forces.
The so-called ENLIST Act would create this pathway to legal status only for younger, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents before 2011. Under current law, only documented, legal immigrants such as those with a green card can join the military, along with U.S. citizens.
The idea has become highly divisive within the Republican party. This week, for example, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), tried to attach it to a military authorization bill. But he failed in the face of opposition from his Republican colleagues.
Despite the way the bill splits Republicans, Cantor said Thursday that he supports the idea, and that talks are ongoing about how it might advance.
“I am mindful and support the fact that if a kid who’s brought here by his or her parents unbeknownst to that child, has never lived anywhere else or remembers living anywhere else, and wants to serve in our military, should be able to do so,” Cantor said on the House floor. “And it’s my position that that child should have a path to citizenship after that service.”
“I remain committed to what the intent of the ENLIST Act is trying to achieve,” he added. “There are members involve who are working on the necessary language to see whether it is possible for us to move forward on that measure.”
Cantor’s remarks show that Republicans are still wrestling with how to grapple with the issue of immigration, particularly as the mid-term elections approach. Democrats have warned that Republicans risk losing votes if they don’t act, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has indicated that he is trying to move Republicans toward some sort of legislative response.
But there are many opponents of the ENLIST Act within the party. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is one of the more vocal opponents, has warned the bill would further weaken border security by creating an incentive for more people to enter the country illegally.
“This bill, this badly named ENLIST Act, would put out the advertisement that says, sneak into America, sneak into the military and that’s going to be the most expeditious path to American citizenship and the whole smorgasbord of benefits that come from American citizenship,” King said in April.
While the party is split over the ENLIST Act, Cantor indicated that the party is still unified in its opposition to the Senate’s broad immigration bill. Cantor repeated the argument that Republican’s can’t trust President Barack Obama to fully enforce any law Congress passes, in light of how Obama has selectively enforced other laws.
“It is at a minimum frustrating for us in the House to watch what goes on… when it comes to decisions made to implement a law according to what the White House thinks it is, not according to the statute,” Cantor said. This problem means Republicans cannot be open to the Senate’s comprehensive bill.
“If we could see our way towards discrete, incremental steps toward strengthening law enforcement on the board, toward doing things like the green card on the diploma, or the ENLIST Act, without the introduction on the insistence of a comprehensive attempt, then I believe we may be able to make progress,” he said. “But to this day, it has been my way or the highway, all or nothing. That is not going to work.”