WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is weighing allowing some immigrants brought illegally to the country as youths to serve in the military, a unilateral step by the Obama administration as immigration legislation remains stalled in the Republican-led House.
The announcement came Tuesday as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, defended his election-year decision to rebuff a narrow immigration measure pushed by a GOP congressman to achieve a similar goal.
The Pentagon consideration would apply to immigrants who arrived illegally as kids but already have received work permits and relief from deportation under a program President Barack Obama announced two years ago, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. More than 500,000 immigrants have benefited from the program.
The Defense Department "continues to examine the laws and policies that address the eligibility of noncitizens to serve in the military in order to determine if and how our programs could be applied to DACA recipients," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a statement.
Such a move by the Pentagon would be the latest example of the Obama administration taking incremental steps by executive action on immigration with comprehensive overhaul legislation stuck in the GOP-led House 11 months after passage by the Senate. Obama is coming under pressure to make broader moves on executive action as the likelihood grows that the House will not pass any immigration bill this year.
Tuesday's developments provided further evidence of the slim chances of House action, as Boehner moved to shut down the likeliest area of compromise on the contentious issue.
Boehner told reporters that a national defense bill was not the place for a vote on California Rep. Jeff Denham's measure offering citizenship to immigrants here illegally who serve.
"We have supported it in the past but trying to do this on the national defense authorization bill seems to us be an inappropriate place to do it," Boehner said. He said there had been discussions about allowing Denham a stand-alone vote on his bill but no decision had been made.
Despite the opposition, Denham testified before the House Rules Committee several hours after Boehner spoke, asking lawmakers to allow his amendment to come to a vote.
"There is no better way to show your patriotism, your commitment, your sacrifice and the willingness to earn that citizenship than being able to serve in our military," Denham said.
But House leaders, who control the Rules Committee, made clear that Denham's effort would be denied.
Denham's bill would allow immigrants who were brought to this country on or before Dec. 31, 2011, and were younger than 15 years old to become legal, permanent residents - the first step toward citizenship - through honorable service in the military. It would apply to a broader group of people than those who've received deferred action from the Obama administration, but Denham told reporters he would welcome any move by the Pentagon on its own.
Denham's bill was co-sponsored by 50 House members, Democrats and Republicans, but an outspoken minority was opposed. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., warned that "all hell will break loose" if Denham tried to promote the measure. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., made clear last week that the GOP leadership would block a vote on Denham bill. Cantor faces a primary opponent in June who's accused him of supporting amnesty.