A push to allow Dreamers to enlist in the military and become legal residents by a coalition of congressional Republicans and Democrats failed Tuesday night.
Supporters clearly had enough votes in the House to pass their plan if it had gone to the House floor, but the effort was blocked by the House Rules Committee.
Reps. Jeff Denham, R-California, Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, Jimmy Panetta, D-California, and Bill Foster, D-Illinois, were trying to consider their idea as part of this year's defense policy bill.
"I have the votes," Denham told McClatchy. "This would pass the House."
A Rules Committee aide said their bid failed because officials didn't want to open up a debate on the controversial issue of Dreamers on the defense bill.
Their proposal would have allowed "certain Dreamers who grew up in the USA to enlist and gain legal status, provided they serve out the terms of their enlistment honorably."
"Dreamers" is the common term for people who came to the country illegally as minors. Undocumented immigrants cannot typically enlist in the U.S. military.
"This would be the quickest path to citizenship for Dreamers," Denham said. "It's the ultimate act of patriotism to support the only country you know and love. They should be encouraged to serve."
About 850 Dreamers serve in the U.S. military who joined under a special program started in 2009 called Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest, or MAVNI.
The program was designed to recruit non-citizens with specialized medical training or certain language skills, such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Korean. They were offered a fast track to citizenship in exchange for their military service.
Their status became unclear when President Donald Trump tried to rescind the legal status of Dreamers granted by former President Barack Obama, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in February that qualified enlisted and honorably discharged Dreamers should not worry about deportation.
After Trump tried to rescind the program, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was specifically asked about the military status of those enlisted Dreamers.
"We have confidence that Congress is going to step up and do their job," she responded.
Denham has been through this before. He's tried to pass it as an amendment to the defense budget in 2013, but withdrew after fellow Republicans urged him to push it as separate legislation. But when he did that, it stalled.
When Denham tried to introduce it as an amendment to the defense bill again in 2014, he was blocked from calling for a vote on the House floor. Denham said the issue is a personal one for him: When he was serving in the Air Force in 1988 he said his sergeant was a Filipino man granted citizenship for serving.
Denham's latest effort has 219 cosponsors, a majority in the House.
It was sent to House Armed Services Committee and hasn't gone anywhere since. Committee leaders told Panetta that this plan wasn't relevant to the defense budget, and needed to go through the Judiciary Committee, according to Denham.
Denham said that rings false, since the usual process for assigning bills to committees specifically referred his bill to the Armed Services Committee.
There is no Senate version of the bill.