The Republican-led House on Thursday narrowly defeated an attempt to bar young immigrants living in the country illegally to enlist in the armed forces, as opponents tied the measure to Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
Lawmakers voted 211-210 to reject an amendment by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to the annual defense spending bill. He said he wanted to close what he called a "backdoor amnesty program" created by President Barack Obama without approval from Congress.
But Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., linked Gosar's amendment to Trump's characterizations of immigrants and the candidate's proposals to deport those illegally in the United States. Trump also wants to build a wall along the Mexican border.
"We shouldn't let anti-immigrant, partisan posturing stand in the way of our military recruitment goals," Gallego, a former Marine who served in Iraq, said. "Our armed forces need the best and brightest soldiers, Marines and airmen they can get, and these young people want nothing more than to serve the country they call home."
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The potential recruits were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They are protected from deportation under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. They also receive temporary work permits, renewable every two years as long as they meet certain requirements. Federal officials have said the program is not a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.
The Pentagon announced nearly two years ago that DACA beneficiaries would be allowed to enlist in a trial program that had been open only to legal immigrants who had unique language, medical and cultural skills.
Gallego said weeks ago the House Armed Services Committee approved a compromise that affirmed the secretary of defense's authority to allow any immigrant to enlist, including DACA beneficiaries, if it's determined to be in the national interest.
Gosar said the Pentagon told him that 141 DACA immigrants have used that path to join the military. But the program was never supposed "to be utilized for the benefit of illegal aliens," according to Gosar, who said they can be granted citizenship if they are deployed to a combat zone for at least one day. He said his amendment would have returned the program to its original intent.
"The president has relentlessly amended immigration law by executive fiat and executive edict. And this is another time," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a frequent critic of the Obama administration's immigration policies who supported Gosar's proposal.
A separate but similar amendment to Gosar's by King would have blocked the Pentagon from using any money to enlist DACA beneficiaries. It failed on a vote of 214-207.
Gallego also opposed King's amendment. "Your patriotism is more important than your papers," he said.