Will Trump back new effort to grant residency to immigrants who join the military?

Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock has introduced legislation that would grant immigrants legal status if they join the U.S. military.
Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock has introduced legislation that would grant immigrants legal status if they join the U.S. military.

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California will test President-elect Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration with a revived bill extending legal status to young immigrants in the U.S. illegally who join the U.S. military.

But Denham’s own persistence and negotiating prowess, too, will be challenged, by the legislation he calls the ENLIST Act. Until now, similar bills have stalled in the Republican-controlled House. Success will require some textbook congressional tactics, and possibly a green light from a president whose immigration priorities have focused on deportations and wall-building.

“There is no greater act of patriotism than serving your country in the armed forces, and (the bill) would allow young immigrants to earn legal status in order to stay in the country they love,” Denham said.

The four-page bill authorizes the military enlistment of immigrants in the U.S. illegally who entered the country prior to Dec. 31, 2012, and were “younger than 15 years of age” when they initially entered the country. The immigrants would be granted permanent legal status, which could be rescinded if they are discharged under other-than honorable conditions.

An Air Force veteran whose congressional district spans Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County, Denham first introduced the Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training Act in 2013. He sought to include it as an amendment to defense bills, before running into strong conservative resistance.

“It’s a personal issue for me,” Denham said in an interview last year. “It was something I dealt with while I was in the Air Force, serving with many immigrants who were gaining their citizenship while they were serving with me.”

Denham introduced his latest version of the legislation on Jan. 3, and it now claims 39 co-sponsors. Roughly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the co-sponsors include Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, as well as Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican who’s been tapped by Trump to serve as interior secretary.

Roughly 45 percent of Denham’s district residents are Hispanic, and he has at times distinguished himself from his fellow Republicans with his stated positions on immigration policy. In 2013, he became the first House Republican to endorse a comprehensive immigration bill authored by Democrats.

The comprehensive 1,000-plus-page House bill backed by Denham included a pathway to legal status and, potentially, eventual U.S. citizenship for immigrants currently in this country without authorization. Though Democrats agreed to add Denham’s enlistment measure, nothing like the giant legalization package is likely to pass this Congress.

Instead, some prevailing Capitol Hill attitudes are conveyed in message-sending bills introduced this month that would suspend all federal aid to “sanctuary cities,” temporarily ban the admission of all refugees and speed up completion of U.S.-Mexico border fencing.

Denham, nonetheless, points to a brief statement made by Trump prior to the November election as reason for hope.

“Do you believe that an undocumented person who serves, who wants to serve in the U.S. armed forces, deserves to stay in this country legally?” West Point graduate and former Signal Corps officer Brenda Sue Fulton asked at a “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC, held in September.

Trump, who did not serve during the Vietnam War, replied in the affirmative.

“I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a very special situation, and I could see myself working that out, absolutely,” Trump said, adding that “we have to be very careful. We have to vet very carefully . . . but the answer is, it would be a very special circumstance, yes.”

On his presidential campaign website, though, Trump declares his priorities to include “immediate” termination of “President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties” that protect immigrants here illegally who entered the United States as children. Trump also asserted that “anyone who illegally crosses the border will be detained until they are removed out of our country.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10