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DENVER — Congressman Mike Coffman, one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbents, is getting used to finding himself constantly under the microscope this year on the issue of immigration reform.

After being elected to replace immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo in 2008, Coffman saw his once safe GOP seat redrawn last year to include Aurora, making it an enticing target for Democrats given the new district’s demographics — 12 percent of registered voters in the 6th Congressional District are Hispanic.

After eking out reelection last November over a mostly unknown opponent, he’s facing a serious 2014 challenge from former Democratic statehouse Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who’s already topped the $1 million mark in fundraising at the year’s mid-way mark.

After avoiding public comment for a few months, Coffman penned an Op-Ed piece that appeared in Sunday’s Denver Post, expressing his support for comprehensive immigration reform — he stopped short of endorsing the bill that passed the Senate this summer — and specifically outlining his support for increased border security measures, wider implementation of E-Verify and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

That same day at a rally in Denver, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, the sponsor of the DREAM Act, praised Coffman for supporting a comprehensive plan; but Democrats in Washington, tasked with engineering Coffman’s defeat next fall, are pulling no punches in attacking Coffman, contrasting his recent positions with a litany of past ones.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday released an annotated copy of Coffman’s Op-Ed, with hand-written marginalia referring to past votes and statements that contradict his latest position paper.

Specifically, the DCCC references Coffman’s 2010 statement when he called the DREAM Act
“a nightmare”, and his vote just a few weeks ago to re-start deportations of young undocumented immigrants, DREAM Act qualifiers currently being allowed to remain in the U.S. under the Obama administration’s policy of deferred action.

“Coffman had a chance to show a month ago that he’s serious about immigration reform,” said the DCCC’s Brandon Lorenz. “Instead, he voted to deport young people. No matter what he’s saying in his district, his actions in Washington show he’s the same guy he’s always been.”

In short, Democrats’ competing imperatives — getting an immigration overhaul to the president’s desk and getting Coffman out of office next year — are muddling the political messaging aimed at the lawmaker on the issue.

Coffman underlines support for citizenship through military service

On Tuesday, Coffman spoke on the record at a hearing of the Immigration and Border Security sub-commission of the Judiciary Committee “addressing the immigration status of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.”

Interestingly, his microphone didn’t work, making it impossible for anyone outside the hearing room to hear what he said.

His office, however, provided FOX31 Denver with a copy of his prepared remarks, according to which Coffman emphatically declared his support for the general idea behind the DREAM Act.

“The first question that we ought to ask ourselves here today is whether or not we believe that the young people, who were brought to this country illegally as children by their relatives, who grew up here, and who went to school here, who probably know of no other county, ought to have a pathway to citizenship and I believe that the answer to that question is yes,” Coffman’s remarks began.

From there, Coffman pivoted to legislation he’s sponsoring, along with Gutierrez, that would allow undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship through military service.

Here is the remainder of Coffman’s prepared remarks, in their entirety:

From my own background I believe that the greatest expression of American citizenship is serving this nation in our military.  It is from the sacrifices of those who have worn the uniform that we, as Americans, enjoy the freedoms that we have today.  I strongly believe that the undocumented young people in our country ought to be able to serve in our military as one of those pathways to citizenship. 

I come from a military family.  My late father served in both the United States Navy and the Army and was a combat veteran from both WWII and the Korean War.   I’m also a combat veteran with service in both the United States Army and the Marine Corps and was in both the first Gulf War and the Iraq War.

First of all, I think we need to remember that the role of the United States Military is to defend our nation and that the principle objective must always be the national security of our country.  We must never use our armed forces as an instrument of social policy when that conflicts with our national security.  Many of us can remember being told, half jokingly, by drill sergeants that in the military we were to defend democracy, and not to practice it.

So the first question should be will it benefit our military to have undocumented immigrants be able to enlist in the United States military and I think that the answer is clearly yes; allowing these undocumented young people to enlist in the military will contribute to the national security of our country. 

I left for my first overseas assignment in the United States Army in Europe in 1972 and returned from my last assignment with the United States Marine Corps in Iraq in 2006.  What I saw over the course of that time was first a military in the early 1970’s, in the aftermath of Vietnam, that suffered from low morale, poor discipline, and a question mark behind its combat readiness.  Since both recruiting and retention were difficult, standards were continually compromised in favor of sustaining a large force numerically.

There is no comparison to my reflections of the military in the early 1970’s and the military of today.  The United States Armed Forces of today is much smaller in size, but it is an elite and a more lethal force of highly qualified Americans who want to join and who want to continue to serve.  However, when the civilian job market improves, retaining this quality force will become more challenging.

A study in 2009 completed by Mission Readiness entitled, “Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve,” found that 75% of young adults between the ages of 17 to 24 are not fit for military service because either they don’t have a high school diploma, are overweight, have a criminal record or a history of substance abuse. I strongly believe that expanding the pool of eligible recruits to select from could play a critical role in helping to retain the elite status of our military even as the civilian job market improves. 

What my legislation, H.R. 435, the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act does is provide reforms to our recruiting regulations that would allow undocumented residents of the United States to apply for military service after they’ve been first vetted by the Department of Homeland Security.  The vetting by the Department of Homeland Security would only mean that the individual is eligible to apply to serve in the military and it would be up to each respective branch of service as to whether or not to accept these applicants.

Permanent residents, or green card holders, are allowed to enlist in the military today but because they are not U.S. citizens they are very restricted in terms of what occupational fields they can do. Only U.S. citizens can hold a security clearance and without a security clearance, an increasing number of occupational fields in the military are off limits.  Opening up enlistment opportunities to undocumented residents would only aggravate an existing problem by relegating these new recruits to a shrinking number of occupation fields given the fact that more and more of them require security clearances.

Coffman going against House GOP grain

Coffman is beginning to give some definition to his stance on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform — supporting a comprehensive approach — just as his fractious House GOP caucus is struggling with how to proceed on the issue.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the House,” Coffman told FOX31 Denver Monday. “I hope something comprehensive happens, but I don’t know that it will.”

That is unquestionably as major 180 for a congressman who described Tancredo as his “hero” back in 2010.

“Whether Mike Coffman has seen the light here or just felt the heat, who knows?” said political analyst Eric Sondermann Tuesday. “Whatever it is, he’s in a very different position than he was a few years ago.”

Can Coffman, by staking out his own clear position early on, distance himself from an ungovernable House GOP caucus should comprehensive immigration reform get derailed there?

A little bit, Sondermann says.

“He can take some of the juice out of these arguments aimed at the Latino community,” Sondermann said. “But not totally.

“But he doesn’t need to win 50 percent of the Latino vote; he just needs to do better than the 20 percent Mitt Romney got.

Republicans, meanwhile, think immigration is an issue where Coffman can put Romanoff, who voted along with Colorado Republicans in 2006 on a number of immigration measures that alienated Latinos across the state, on the defensive.

“It’s disingenuous for Washington Democrats to attack anyone on immigration when their hand-picked candidate, Andrew Romanoff, voted for the harshest immigration laws in the nation as Colorado Speaker of the House,” said Tyler Q. Houlton, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Romanoff will go to any length to hide his extreme voting record from Colorado voters because he knows he’ll be rejected at the ballot box — just like he was in 2010,” Houlton said, alluding to Romanoff’s unsuccessful primary challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet three years ago.

“There is one political truth to Mike Coffman’s career — he is a survivor,” Sondermann continued. “He is often underestimated, but the last time I looked, he had not lost a seat — not a state house race, a Secretary of State race, a Treasurer’s race or a congressional race, even when people have come at him.

“This is going to be an extreme test.”