By Cristina Marcos - 05/14/15 07:09 PM EDT
The House on Thursday voted to strip a provision from the annual defense bill that edged toward allowing young illegal immigrants to enlist in the military.
Divisions between ardent GOP opponents of illegal immigration and vulnerable Republicans who represent districts with large Hispanic constituencies flared in the 221-202 vote.
Twenty Republicans voted with all Democrats in opposition of the amendment from Rep. Mo BrooksMo BrooksGOP rep: Muslims want to 'kill every homosexual' in the US House GOP avoids debate over immigration in defense bill GOP rep. on 'Lucifer' remark: Boehner has ‘said much, much worse’ MORE (R-Ala.) that killed the immigration language.
The debate demonstrated the GOP's challenge in handling President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows qualified illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to obtain temporary work permits. Democrats and supporters of the program refer to recipients as “Dreamers.”
Brooks's amendment scraps a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have established a sense of the House that the Pentagon should review allowing DACA recipients to enlist.
The House Armed Services Committee approved that language, authored by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), during its marathon markup of the NDAA last month. Six Republican members of the panel, including Coffman and McSally, joined with Democrats to approve it.
In a letter to fellow lawmakers earlier Thursday, Brooks argued the provision was adopted during the "early morning, sleep-deprived portion" of the markup and didn't belong in the bill.
"There is no military recruitment and retention deficit that justifies supplanting Americans and lawful immigrants with illegal aliens," Brooks said during floor debate.
Another provision of the NDAA authored by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) would have directed the secretary of Defense to review how allowing DACA recipients to serve in the military would impact the pool of potential recruits and military readiness. The secretary of Defense would then brief members of the House Armed Services Committee on the evaluation's results.
That provision remains in the bill, as the House Rules Committee did not allow a vote on an amendment to eliminate the Veasey language.
Denham, a top Democratic target in the next election cycle whose district includes a sizable Hispanic population, tried to push for a standalone vote on his proposal to outright allow young illegal immigrants to enlist in the military in exchange for legal status. But as they did last year, House GOP leaders denied him a vote on the floor.
Coffman and other Republicans who support giving "Dreamers" a path to legal status whipped fellow GOP lawmakers to oppose the Brooks amendment.
The outcome of Thursday’s vote was similar to the one for a Homeland Security proposal in January, when 26 Republicans defected to oppose a proposal that would have halted the DACA program entirely.
"If Dreamers want to put their life on the line for this nation, we should give them the opportunity and honor their willingness to serve," said Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran.
Herrera Beutler argued that enlisting in the military should be a way for immigrants without documentation to earn citizenship.
"If a person has the courage and conviction to take the oath and to join our nation's warriors to defend you and I, what more can they do to prove their allegiance?" the Washington Republican said.
Republicans opposed to allowing DACA recipients serve in the military warned that a policy even merely encouraging the Pentagon to consider the possibility could be interpreted as an endorsement of Obama's executive actions.
"This Congress cannot send a message to ratify the president's lawless actions," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Some conservatives, including King, warned they would vote against the entire defense authorization bill on Friday if the Brooks amendment wasn't adopted.
A federal appeals court is expected to issue a decision this summer about the fate of Obama's November executive actions that expanded the DACA program to shield some immigrants in the U.S. illegally from deportation. The executive actions have been frozen since February.
Meanwhile, the Army has already enlisted more than 80 DACA recipients since January despite the ongoing debate in Congress. They can be recruited through a Pentagon program known as the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, for legal immigrants with medical training or valuable language skills.
Hillary Clinton, through a spokeswoman, slammed the House vote.
"If these courageous young men and women want to serve, they should be honored and celebrated, not discriminated against," Clinton national political director Amanda Renteria said in a statement. "While we keep up the pressure for comprehensive action, allowing DREAMers to serve in the military is the right step forward."
- This story was updated at 7:25 p.m.