DENVER — Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado said Thursday he supports granting citizenship to people who enter the country illegally and serve in the U.S. military.
The Republican is challenging Democratic Sen Mark Udall and has been criticized for not favoring a broader path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally.
Gardner's statements, in an interview with The Associated Press, came a day after immigrant rights activists held sit-ins at his office and more than two dozen others. The protests were held over frustrations that House Republicans have bottled up a sweeping immigration bill that the Senate passed last year.
Gardner said he supported securing the border and a guest worker program, but said discussing a pathway to citizenship was "political." He added citizenship for military service made sense.
"I can't think of a better way to show your desire for citizenship than to serve your country in the military," Gardner said. "Most people you talk to believe that's the law of the land."
Republican House leaders last month refused to allow a California congressman to amend a defense authorization bill to create such a program for people in the U.S. illegally. The Obama administration is poised to allow some people here illegally to serve in the military.
In the interview, Gardner would not say whether he supported a broader effort to grant citizenship to anyone brought to the U.S. illegally as a child who graduates from college or serves in the military.
President Barack Obama took executive action in 2012 to allow some of those immigrants to work here legally and avoid deportation. Gardner has voted to reverse that order. He said his objection is that the president didn't have the legal authority to make such a change.
Republicans steadily have lost ground in Colorado as the state's growing Hispanic population has become more politically active. Democrats have hammered Gardner for his votes to repeal Obama's immigration program and as being part of a Republican party that refuses to allow most of the people here illegally a chance at citizenship.