Senator Menendez Calls for Immigration Reform

PHOTO: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) called on Republicans and Democrats to work toward immigration reform during a talk at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) laid out what he would like immigration reform to look like during a talk at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday afternoon.

"This election was a mandate to enact comprehensive immigration reform," he said, adding that the issue has "languished too long."

Menendez has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform in the past as well. He was the last senator to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill. In 2011, he authored a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented people in the country.

Menendez said again on Wednesday that he believed immigration reform should be a pathway to eventual citizenship. Undocumented immigrants in the nation should be required to pay any taxes they haven't paid as residents. They should also face a background check, pay a fine, and be required to learn English. And, if they have a criminal history, they should be sent back to their home country.

All of that should lead to legal residency, and then after a period of time, perhaps five years, they should have the opportunity to apply for citizenship, he said.

The English-language requirement is notable because, as Menendez noted, "it's something that in fact we have never required for permanent residency in this country."

Menendez hopes the election results will move "awakened" Republicans to action.

He added that he thinks "immigration reform is the civil rights issue of our time," and that Republicans need to wake up to the fact that hardline immigration policies will not gain them Latino votes.

Surveys suggest that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's immigration rhetoric hurt him. Romney opposed renewing the deferred action policy that allows some undocumented young people to apply for deportation reprieves, and he said he would have vetoed the DREAM Act.

Menendez and political opinion research firm Latino Decisions founder Matt Barreto, who also spoke on Wednesday, pointed out that many Latinos know people who have been deported or are in deportation proceedings.

Menendez said the elimination of birthright citizenship, which some Republicans have advocated, would lead "to an underclass in this country."

He added that he thinks it's important to keep families, meaning spouses and children, together. And that just "throwing more money" at border enforcement "doesn't make good policy."

He added that House Republican leadership must come to the conclusion that "extreme members in that caucus can no longer exercise a veto" on the immigration reform process.

Both men also cited the economic benefits of allowing a path to residency and then citizenship for undocumented immigrants, pointing out that despite the tough economy, there are a shortage of workers to fill jobs that immigrants often occupy, such as hotel workers and restaurant employees.

There is also a shortage of highly-skilled math and science workers. Menendez said he would eliminate green card caps for people who fall into that category.

Barreto said real, immediate changes are possible with immigration, and cited President Barack Obama's deferred action policy as an example. It had an immediate effect, and was widely supported by Latinos. The economy, on the other hand, is difficult to change overnight, he said, so Republicans could really win support by working on immigration reform. He pointed to Latino Decisions survey data that shows a correlation between a candidate's stance on immigration reform and support for that candidate among Latino voters. Immigration reform that does not include a path to citizenship receives far less support among Latino voters, he added.

"The driver of this issue is the community" right now, said Menendez, and they "want citizenship."

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