It did not always look that good.
The Senate has just succeeded in voting for a bipartisan bill that would fundamentally transform every aspect of the nation’s immigration system. One of the bill’s main architects, Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, recalls the marathon-like meetings between legislators and aides from both parties – and how rough it got at times.
“There were very tough moments,” says Menendez to NBC Latino. “”Ensuring the pathway to citizenship – not legalization, but citizenship, was tough, as well as negotiating for real family unification,” he says. “And finding a solution to the future flow issue between labor and the Chamber of Commerce was also a critical moment,” he adds.
In the end, the Gang of Eight Senators – 4 Democrats and 4 Republicans – were able to hash it out. But legislators don’t work in a vacuum, and a confluence of politics and the realities of today’s economy contributed to having, as Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said, “the wind at the back.” The first factor – says Menendez, was the 2012 election, and the power of the Latino vote.
“The nation evidenced a demographic shift that sent a clear message – citizens, many in the immigrant community, wanted to see immigration reform,” says Menendez. “They drove a message to the GOP, whom they saw as opposed to this and whose rhetoric was harmful – and they punished them at the polls,” he says. “It was an awakening for many of our (Republican) colleagues.”
The Democratic Senator acknowledges the important role the Gang of 8 Republicans had in making the bill a reality. “Senator John McCain had a lot of influence in the caucus, coming from a border state, and as a Southerner Lindsay Graham made a case for immigration reform. Marco (Rubio) played the role of trying to assuage conservative elements in a broader scale.”
Apart from the increasing importance of the Latino vote, there were other important groups pushing for a Senate bill, says Menendez. The business community lobbied hard for the need for high-tech visas, the agricultural growers argued they needed workers in their fields, organized labor recognized undocumented immigrants are their future organizers, and churches recognized who were the parishioners in their pews, says the New Jersey Senator.
“All these things together,” said Menendez, was a singular opportunity.
But getting the Senate bill into a law to be signed by President Obama is far from a done deal, as the House takes on the legislation. Here, Menendez issued a strong warning to House members.
“There is no doubt in my mind there is a majority in the House that supports reform – the only reason it wouldn’t pass the House is because a minority of the minority will seek to intimidate the majority view,” he states, saying there is a minority who will never agree to a pathway to citizenship. If this group is allowed to “control the process, they are doomed.”
After meeting with Speaker Boehner, says Menendez, he is convinced the Speaker wants to find a way forward, “but I don’t think he knows right now how to get there – he is thinking about it.”
The Gang of 8 Senator argues that now that border security is not an issue, and the Congressional Budget Office says the bill would benefit the economy, “all of their arguments have been eliminated.”
“At the end of the day, I believe we will come out with one bill,” says Menendez. “After 20 years of fighting between the House and Senate on the issue, this is the closest we’ve ever been,” he says, adding that allowing a minority in the House to decide the fate of what is supported by millions of Americans is “the antithesis of democracy.”