Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is promising to introduce a major immigration reform bill this month, even as the volatile issue promises to be a nonstarter in this political season for Democrats who want to avoid even more controversial votes.
His announcement Wednesday, before about 200 pro-immigration activists at a church near Capitol Hill, came a day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled he would try to pass a separate bill next week providing citizenship to young, undocumented immigrants if they attend college for two years or join the military.
Sources familiar with the Menendez bill said it would include border security provisions, employment verification, a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.
“A journey of a 1,000 miles begin with a single step,” said Menendez, the Senate’s lone Hispanic member. “There can be no chance if there is no legislation. The reality is that legislation gives the process, the vehicle by which to garner support and to move forward.”
But Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, conceded that the election would make it difficult to get any real floor time for an immigration debate this fall.
Menendez and two vocal reform backers in the House — Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) – said they would meet with President Barack Obama Thursday afternoon to request his support for the new legislation and the immigrant-student bill, known as the DREAM Act.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday the president backed the act as a senator and that the Obama administration supports it now.
“Certainly it’s our hope that working with Congress we can see progress on that,” Gibbs said. “And none of that will replace what has to happen from a comprehensive level and a comprehensive perspective to deal with the issues around immigration reform.”
Reid said he would attach the DREAM Act as an amendment to the annual defense spending bill, though that proposal has been met with fierce opposition from Republicans who accuse Democrats of trying to excite their Hispanic base before the Nov. 2 elections.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) blasted the legislation on the Senate floor on Wednesday, saying it provides amnesty for lawbreakers and an economic incentive that encourages more illegal immigration.
“The DREAM Act would grant amnesty to millions of immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally,” he said.
Menendez said he’s yet to secure any support from Republicans for his legislation, something he needs to overcome the 60-vote threshold to advance the bill in a possible lame-duck session.
“The elections make for a difficult context to be able to get people to focus on this but it is my hope that we will be able to amass support before the elections and we can seek to galvanize it after the elections,” Menendez said. “Certainly what I will introduce in the Senate will have plenty of Republican ideas in it.”
Menendez’s bill is similar to a proposal Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) rolled out earlier this year in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
Graham, however, has since taken a tougher stand against illegal immigration, and vowed not to support the DREAM Act as an amendment. If the Senate fails to pass the amendment, the DREAM Act could be included in the Menendez bill.
“When the Democratic leadership says they’re going to bring up the defense bill and put the Dream Act on it as an amendment, well that is very offensive to me. Obviously their actions are all about politics,” Graham said in a statement.
“Democrats are trying to check a box with Hispanic voters at the expense of our men and women in uniform,” he added. “It’s very unfortunate they are planning to use the defense bill in such a fashion.”
The Reid proposal was met with derision from members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, which opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“The DREAM Act is a nightmare for the American people,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a caucus member and the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “It is an assault on law-abiding, taxpaying American citizens and legal immigrants.”
Gutierrez said the new Menendez legislation would be a companion bill to the one he introduced in the House last year. That bill has more than 100 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
“We need a bill introduced, something people can get behind, something the president can say, ‘That’s what I want passed,’” Gutierrez told reporters. “That’s how legislation gets done here.”
Just blocks from the Capitol, faith and immigration leaders from as far as Arizona and Hawaii packed the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, and cheered when Menendez vowed to press forward with a bill.
But they warned that this was only the first step.
“A legislative show is not going to be acceptable,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told POLITICO. “We expect Democrats and Republicans to lead the nation forward in fixing the broken immigration system.”
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, one of the event’s organizers, described a newfound momentum for backers of comprehensive immigration reform.
“Months ago, pundits in D.C. wrote us off and left us for dead,” he said. “Well, we have a message for them: We are back.”