Dems debate mixing immigration, defense

Senate Democrats are debating whether to include language in the defense authorization bill to give legal status to young people who are illegal immigrants but serve in the military.

There’s broad support for the idea in the Democratic conference, but there’s also worries that including the controversial idea could derail the defense authorization bill.

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“I think it’s a tactical issue,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill.

“There will probably be a lot of support for it but it’s got to be done at the right time, when it makes a positive contribution to that goal,” Levin said. “There’s some question as to whether this is the time for it to be offered.”

Republicans oppose the idea, and inserting the immigration issue into the debate about defense programs would complicate efforts to move the annual defense legislation.

“I’m opposed to it overall and or in the NDAA,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the panel’s ranking member, told The Hill.

“I’d rather have it standing up and down; it’s that important of a bill,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), an original proponent of the Dream Act, which would have given legal status to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.

“I’d rather have everybody know what they’re voting for, and then have to vote. I’d like to see that,” Hatch said.

Debate over the topic has been renewed by an announcement from Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, that he will convene a hearing next week in Chicago on the issue.

Levin said the measure could potentially end up incorporated into his committee’s underlying defense policy bill.

“I’d like to see it happen,” he said. He later described himself as “all for” legislation that would grant legal status to youths for who serve in the military.

“People who serve our country, I believe, ought to be eligible for citizenship if they’re willing to put the uniform on and put their life on the line,” Levin said.

Even if Democrats do succeed in including language in the bill, it would be difficult for it to become law.

The provision would put a Senate bill directly at odds with the House Armed Services Committee, which unanimously approved its version of the defense authorization bill last week. That measure did not include any provisions on immigration. 

The full House is set to take up the legislation next week and it remains to be seen whether any members, Republican or Democrat, will make a push to include language on immigration when the bill hits the floor for a vote.