Extremists tell undocumented kids, “Don’t bother fighting for Uncle Sam”

     <a href=justasc / Shutterstock.com " title="ssunclesamx1200" width="640" height="360"/>

    justasc / Shutterstock.com

    Conservative extremists – the same people who crack the whip in the GOP – are so hostile to immigration reform, they won’t even give a break to the kids who are willing to die for America.

    Have you heard of the Enlist Act? Probably not, because this is a story that Republican leaders had hoped to keep under the radar. No such luck, guys. This story deserves to be fully aired, because it speaks volumes about a predominantly white party that seems suicidally determined to remain so.

    It all began last year, when House Republican Jeff Denham of California came up with a plan to immigration reform and patriotism. Under his Enlist Act, young undocumented immigrants who came to America before turning 15 would be able to join the Armed Forces; those who were honorably discharged would be eligible for U.S. citizenship. What better way for a young immigrant to demonstrate loyalty to America than to be willing to die for it?

    House Majority Leader Eric Cantor liked the idea. So did 24 House Republicans, who signed up as co-sponsors – along with 26 House Democrats. It was a modest bipartisan reform, and for the GOP, it was a potential bridge to the wary Hispanic electorate. As the Republican National Committee warned early last year, “If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence….Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

    The clang you just heard was the door slamming shut.

    Last Friday afternoon (traditionally the best time to bury embarrassing decisions), Cantor reversed himself and essentially said that the Enlist Act is dead. Denham wanted to attach it to a major defense spending bill that’s up for consideration this week, but Cantor said no, he won’t give it a floor vote. Yesterday, Denham released a defiant statement, for what it’s worth: “The Enlist Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism – serving their country – to earn legal status. As a veteran, I can think of no better way to demonstrate your commitment to our nation.”

    Why did Cantor recant his support? Duh, take a guess. He’s looking over his right shoulder at his right-wing primary challenger. Dave Brat (that’s his name) has scant chance of winning, but he has been assailing Cantor for being less than 100 percent hostile to undocumented immigrants. So Cantor has knuckled under. That’s standard behavior these days in the GOP, where all the heat comes from the white rabid right.

    And, during the past five weeks, there has been plenty of heat about the Enlist Act. An Alabama congressman warned that if the bill was allowed to come up for a vote, “all hell would break loose.” Groups like Heritage Action (a Jim DeMint outpost) and the Madison Project (which supports conservative candidates) won’t cut the undocumented kids any slack, even if they’re willing to go fight for freedom. I guess that patriotic appeals don’t work the way they used to.

    Daniel Horowitz, the Madison Project policy director, wrote this weekend that the Enlist Act “would essentially invite illegals to join the military and turn our armed forces into a visa mill.” He assails the bill as a “travesty,” a backdoor “amnesty.” Meanwhile, Heritage Action warned that if congressmen voted Yes on the Enlist Act, it would hurt their Heritage rating. A Heritage spokesman also said the Enlist Act would have “a negative impact on our military.” That’s precisely what conservatives used to say about openly gay soldiers. But since conservatives have lost that fight, they’ve had to find new people to demonize. Patriotic undocumented immigrants fill the bill.

    And, of course, Iowa congressman Steve King critiqued the Enlist Act in recent remarks on the right-wing Breitbart News website. Referring to the undocumented kids, he opined: “As soon as they raise their hand and say, ‘I’m unlawfully present in the United States,’ we’re not going to take your oath into the military, but we’re going to take your deposition, and we have a bus for you to Tijuana.'”

    See, that’s the kind of mentality we’re talking about.

    That mentality is not only out of sync with the American mainstream (in a new national poll, 71 percent support sweeping immigration reform), but with most Republicans (in the same poll, 64 percent support reform). Even some prominent conservatives, including Grover Norquist and tea-party activist Sal Russo, are urging the GOP to embrace reform. CNBC host and former Reagan advisor Larry Kudlow wrote Saturday that “the GOP will not be successful unless it actively reaches out to groups that have recently deserted it. Immigration is a crucial symbol in the GOP reach-out effort.”

    But if the party won’t even embrace a patriotic piecemeal reform, if it stays in thrall to its extremists, it can forget about reaching out. The guy from the Madison Project crowed the other day that the fight over the Enlist Act was for the “soul” of the GOP, but it appears that the party has already sold it.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.