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GOP Split Over Legalization Proposal for Enlisted Immigrants

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A members of the group Border Dreamers and other supporters of an open border policy march toward the United States border where some plan to ask for asylum Monday, March 10, 2014, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)Lenny Ignelzi / AP

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A House Republican is pushing back at critics of his proposal to allow some young undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if they serve in the military.

"It's very frustrating to hear controversy from members who have never served their country and don't understand the impact that immigrants have had on our freedoms," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., told reporters in response to criticism of his legislation.

Denham was working to include his plan, called the ENLIST Act, in a larger military funding bill set to be considered in the House soon. But a group of conservative Republicans pushed back on the effort, with some threatening that the entire Pentagon funding bill would be at risk of passing if the provision for so-called DREAMers is included.

“That’s bunk,” said Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama when reporters asked him to respond to Denham’s remarks. “Next question.”

Brooks called the military immigration measure an “extracurricular issue” and said there would be “significant opposition that will arise if the National Defense Authorization Bill is used as a means to give blanket amnesty to illegal aliens.”

In a statement, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon said that he would not include the legalization provision in his original draft of the bill but was careful not to weigh in on the substance of Denham's proposal.

"This is an important issue that I know will continue to be debated going forward," he said, saying that he believes his own first draft of the military spending measure shouldn't be the "original venue" for the debate over the status of undocumented immigrants who serve in the military.

Denham is himself a veteran of the Air Force, where he served for 16 years both in active duty and in the reserves. But he is not a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the military spending bill.

The California Republican is in a tough spot regarding the lack of action on immigration reform in the House. He represents a district with a 40 percent immigrant population; that’s one of the highest of any Republican-held districts in the country.

He is also a co-sponsor of the House's version of the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill, but he did not go as far as to join a Democratic effort to force a vote on that measure on the House floor.

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