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Sen. Menendez Explains Congressional Democrats' New Immigration Bill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden came into office promising big changes in U.S. immigration policy, and he sent a sweeping proposal to Congress that included a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. right now. Today congressional Democrats revealed their bill, and the charge in the Senate is led by Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Welcome, Senator.

BOB MENENDEZ: Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. So when you announced the bill today, you said that, quote, "we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country." Let me ask you, what can be done to assure that that doesn't happen this time around, do you think?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think that there's a variety of factors. No. 1, we have a president who is leaning in to seeking robust reform. That's something we certainly haven't had in the last four years and really didn't have any president in recent history start off in the first month of their term leading into it. Secondly, we have a House of Representatives that already in the last Congress passed the various elements of this legislation by the House with bipartisan votes. And then thirdly, we have a Senate Democratic leader, Senator Chuck Schumer, who was willing to put some effort in this regard. Admittedly, it'll be a little bit more of a challenge in the Senate because of the 60-vote threshold. But those dynamics bring this all into a much different paradigm, I think.

CHANG: Well...

MENENDEZ: And I also think the American people are with us on this one.

CHANG: As you mentioned, you will need some Republican support. So have you spoken with Republicans Lindsey Graham or Marco Rubio? They were part of the last Gang of Eight effort back in 2013. Have they or any other Republicans given you any indication that they will come on board with you?

MENENDEZ: Well, I have spoken to a series of Republicans, and many of them are interested in different aspects of the legislation. We have colleagues who come from big ag states, and they care, for example, about the provisions on farm workers. We have others who come from meatpacking states and poultry states. They care about the provisions on that.

We have others who represent some high-tech interests. They'd like to see the provisions making sure that - you know, a student at one of the great American universities that could lead in the STEM field would be able to stay and help innovate in America. So the question for them, as I said, as we have this conversation, is, OK, that's the elements of the law that you like. What else are you willing to join us with? - because everybody likes some element. The question is, how do we amalgamate a majority...

CHANG: Right.

MENENDEZ: ...For getting all of this done?

CHANG: And that leads me to ask, I mean, can you really build that much support with the Republicans without giving this bill more teeth for enforcement? Like, what additional funding is there for ICE or border security?

MENENDEZ: Well, we have to start off with the recognition that, certainly over the last four years, the pendulum has swung the entire way to the right on the question of enforcement. As a matter of fact, we have more Border Patrol agents than any time in the history of the country. As a matter of fact, the budget for the Border Patrol is greater than all of the federal law enforcement agencies we have together - FBI, Secret Service and others, ATF. So that speaks volumes about what we've already done with the border.

Secondly, we believe that the elements that we have in the legislation, which is using technology more intelligently to deal with challenges at the border, making sure that the drugs that come into the country, which come through legal ports of entry but don't get scanned at the end of the day to find them - that we use technology to do exactly that. So we think that there is significant elements as it relates to the border. We also think that by getting to the root causes to stop people from fleeing from Central America, for example, to the United States, we stem the tide of undocumented immigration.

CHANG: Well, in about the 30 seconds or so we have left, we have said that a key piece of all of this, the pathway to citizenship - it did fail under both President Obama and President George W. Bush. What gives you reason to be more hopeful this time around about getting that enacted into law?

MENENDEZ: Well, you know, in 2013, I was part of the Gang of Eight. We passed comprehensive immigration reform with 68 votes in the Senate.

CHANG: Right.

MENENDEZ: Unfortunately, Republicans in the House never gave it the time of day to vote for. We have a Democratic House and a speaker who's willing to do it. We have a president willing to lean into it, and we have a Senate majority leader willing to fight for it.

CHANG: All right.

MENENDEZ: And I think that that and the interests that are at stake can help us achieve some robust immigration reform success.

CHANG: That is Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Thank you very much, senator.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.