June 12, 2013

Calif. lawmakers press for immigrant benefits and more in defense bill

An immigrant’s military service could be a path to legal U.S. residency, if Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., gets his way.

An immigrant’s military service could be a path to legal U.S. residency, if Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., gets his way.

Undocumented immigrants would also be allowed to enlist, with legal permanent residency a reward for completing honorable service, under Denham’s proposal. Like dozens of other House members, he hopes his idea can hitch a ride this week on a huge, must-pass defense bill.

“If they want to put their lives on the line to demonstrate their patriotism, we should welcome that with open arms,” Denham said Wednesday.

In a common Capitol Hill practice, Denham’s measure covering the military service of undocumented immigrants was one of 298 amendments proposed for the Fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill. Because the underlying defense bill will eventually become law, unlike many bills floating about Capitol Hill, it’s a magnet for legislators who want to add or subtract something from a package that this year starts out at 831 pages.

Some proposals from Californians send a big message, even if they appear doomed.

Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Grove backs an amendment that would require all U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan to end this year. On a 113-303 vote, the Republican-controlled House last year shrugged off a similar amendment authored by Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of Berkeley.

“This is a black hole if there ever was one,” Garamendi said Wednesday, referring to U.S. spending on Afghanistan security programs.

Some proposals tinker modestly, moving money from one pocket to another.

Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney of Stockton, Calif., wants to shift $15 million out of the defense secretary’s office budget and into a National Guard youth program that runs camps in San Luis Obispo and Orange Counties, among other locations.

Some proposals come blessed by powerful sponsors.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Palmdale, Calif., wants to make “student cadet corps” eligible for National Guard assistance like that provided to the Boy Scouts. This could help the California Cadet Corps, which has run programs at Kerman High School and Tulare Union High School, among other San Joaquin Valley locations.

And some proposals, like several involving the distinct topics of immigrants and military sexual assault, take advantage of the political moment.

Denham’s amendment covers those people who have been in the United States without authorization for at least two years. If they leave the armed services under other than honorable conditions, they would lose their legal permanent residence status. Hispanics account for about 25 percent of the residents in Denham’s district, which covers Stanislaus and part of San Joaquin counties.

In some ways, the amendment tracks the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide legal status for those who entered the United States below the age of 16 and who complete schooling or military service. Though the legislation has never become law, President Barack Obama during the 2012 election campaign announced that the same DREAM Act population would not be deported.

Denham modified his amendment to match the Dream Act requirement that the enter the country before the age of 16

“For those that have reaped the benefits of this great country, it gives them an opportunity to give back,” Denham said.

The underlying defense bill proposed several changes in military law designed to curtail sexual assault, including lifting the five-year statute of limitations on sexual assault cases. An amendment by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of San Mateo, Calif., would also strip sexual assault cases from the normal chain of command. Uniformed military leaders oppose the measure, as do leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The $552 billion House bill includes several provisions targeting California, beyond the big money devoted to buying drones, warplanes, helicopters and other martial tools made in the state.

The legislation includes $62 million for construction of a ground operations center at Beale Air Force Base in the Sacramento Valley. It also transfers lands in Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino counties that are part of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake into direct control of the Department of the Navy.

The House Rules Committee selects the amendments that can be offered on the House floor. Whatever passes must still survive future negotiations with the Senate.

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