Cantor clarifies position on one part of immigration debate


House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.). (Post)

House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday that he supports a GOP-sponsored measure that would allow the children of illegal immigrants who serve in the U.S. military to seek U.S. citizenship. But he declined again to say when or if he will schedule a vote on the proposal.

A handful of Republicans who represent districts with fast-growing Latino communities are pushing to enact legislation that would allow the children of illegal immigrants who enlist in the U.S. military to eventually seek permanent resident status or full citizenship.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Cantor sought to push back against news reports and comments from immigration reform activists this week who have suggested that he is purposely blocking the proposal from receiving a vote as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill. The defense measure is one of the few remaining "must-pass" pieces of legislation in an otherwise gridlocked Congress and supporters believe that adding the proposal to the defense bill would ensure that it becomes perhaps the only immigration-related legislation to pass the House and Senate this year.

The issue came to a head this week when Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who represent districts with burgeoning Hispanic populations, asked the House Rules Committee to allow a vote on the amendment as part of debate on the National Defense Authorization Act. But the committee, controlled by top House GOP leaders, declined late Tuesday to allow a vote, robbing Denham, Coffman and supportive Democrats their best chance of ensuring passage.

Cantor said Wednesday that "My position has always been... that if you’re a kid who was brought here by your parents, in many cases unbeknownst to that person, and you want to serve in our military and you know no other country as home, you ought to be able to do that and be able to become a citizen if you have served in our country’s armed forces."

"I just think -- and have said repeatedly over the last weeks, if not months -- that the NDAA is not the appropriate place for this, but I support the principle," he added later.

When asked whether he will schedule a vote on Denham's proposal at a later date, Cantor said that "no decision has been made" -- a phrase used by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) earlier this week when he was asked the same question.

Cantor faces a June 10 primary against David Brat, a tea party activist and college professor who has gained traction in recent weeks. Immigration reform activists this week have suggested that Cantor is blocking proposals like Denham's from earning a vote as part of debate on the defense bill in order to inoculate himself from attacks by Brat, conservative groups and members of his own Republican Conference.

But Cantor disputed those suggestions. "I have been very definitive on this: I am for the principle, but I am not for using NDAA to do this," he said. "This is not a political matter, this is a serious issue involving military service."

Denham said Wednesday that he was "disappointed" that the Rules Committee blocked a vote on his proposed amendment, adding in a statement that "I will continue to push for a vote on the stand-alone bill so that undocumented young people who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism will have that opportunity and be able to earn legal status through their sacrifice."

On Tuesday, Denham told reporters he hadn't spoken directly with Cantor about scheduling a vote for his bill. "I'm still looking for a date certain," he said, adding later that earning a vote will "depend on the strength and the will of independent members of our [Republican] conference."

A full transcript of Cantor's remarks appears below:

Q: I wanted to put you on the record regarding some questions this week about your support for the ENLIST Act.

Cantor: "For some time now, weeks if not months, I have said publicly my position has always been that first of all, service in our military is one of the highest honors that anyone could actually fulfill and that if you’re a kid who was brought here by your parents, in many cases unbeknownst to that person, and you want to serve in our military and you know no other country as home, you ought to be able to do that and be able to become a citizen if you have served in our country’s armed forces.

So that means you support the principle of Denham’s bill?

Cantor: "I have always said that and I just think and have said repeatedly over the last weeks if not months that the NDAA is not the appropriate place for this but I support the principle."

So you're willing to hold a vote on the bill at some point this summer?

Cantor: "Well, no decision has been made, the members involved are still working out the language, but no decisions have been made."

I know there’s a lot of sensitivity to this issue in your conference. There have been suggestions this week that part of the reason you may not be willing to be too definitive on this is that you face a primary challenge.

Cantor: "I have been very definitive on this: I am for the principle, but I am not for using NDAA to do this. This is not a political matter, this is a serious issue involving military service."

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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