By Mike Lillis - 05/14/15 05:35 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders on Thursday ripped Republicans as "xenophobic" for the GOP's effort to prevent illegal immigrants from serving in the armed forces.
"I would hate to see the time and the talent and the desire of these young people to serve their country squashed by people who will attack them at every turn for no reason simply than they are 'other,' " Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Congress, said Thursday.
The Democrats are pushing a proposal encouraging the Pentagon to examine whether allowing certain immigrants who are in the country illegaly to serve in the military would strengthen national security.
The Gallego amendment has been panned by conservative Republicans, who are hoping to strip the provision from the defense authorization package with a separate amendment scheduled for a vote Thursday evening.
Rep. Mo BrooksMo BrooksGOP bill would block undocumenteds from military service GOP rep: Muslims want to 'kill every homosexual' in the US House GOP avoids debate over immigration in defense bill MORE (R-Ala.), the sponsor of the GOP amendment, warned ahead of the vote that allowing illegal immigrants to serve in the military would undermine opportunities for U.S. citizens.
“As America’s military downsizes, there are a limited number of enlistment opportunities for American citizens," Brooks wrote in a letter to his fellow Republicans. "Each time an illegal alien takes an enlistment opportunity, an America or lawful immigrant loses an enlistment opportunity. The ratio is one-to-one. Period. That is math."
Other Republicans said they oppose the Gallego amendment — which targets those illegal immigrants eligible for President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — because it would "legitimize" an executive action they deem unconstitutional, in the description of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).
The immigration issue has long-been a thorn in the side of GOP leaders. From the left, they've been pressured by those who want to move comprehensive immigration reforms — including citizenship provisions — in an effort to diminish the overwhelming Hispanic support enjoyed by Democrats in recent election cycles. From the right, they've been pushed by conservatives fervently opposed to legalization and citizenship benefits, which they consider "amnesty."
Caught in the middle, GOP leaders have largely avoided the immigration issue altogether.
Democrats, by contrast, have pushed hard for reforms under the GOP-controlled House. And as the debate has intensified around the Gallego amendment this week, Democrats took great strides to paint the Republican opponents as an intolerant bunch hell-bent on ripping apart immigrant families.
"This is yet another example of anti-immigrant attitude on the part of the House Republicans," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said a few hours before the vote on the Brooks amendment. "This xenophobic, anti-newcomer attitude is something that is un-American."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) piled on.
"I would hope that our Republican friends would come to their senses," he said, "[and] would not be blinded by prejudice or a desire to exclude, but be motivated by a desire to recognize the patriotism, and desire to serve, of these young people."