Sen. Bob Menendez, a key negotiator in congressional immigration talks, cast doubt Thursday on prospects for legislation to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if Democrats cannot advance the measure through the budget reconciliation process.
“If we don’t have reconciliation, I’m not sure that there’s a pathway forward,” said Menendez, D-N.J., referencing efforts by Senate Democrats to include immigration provisions in a $3.5 trillion package that could advance in the chamber with a straight majority vote.
During a briefing with the American Business Immigration Coalition, Menendez recounted roughly a dozen “significant meetings” he had with Republican colleagues, “trying to plow through what would be possible” on immigration. But he said he was never able to identify the 10 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation through the regular process.
Menendez accused his colleagues across the aisle of being “more interested in punishing immigrants than they are in recognizing their incredible contributions to this country.”
“The Republicans of 2021 are not the same Republicans I worked with in 2013 to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate,” said Menendez, a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that successfully ushered immigration overhaul legislation through the Senate in 2013, only to have the bill die in the Republican-controlled House.
“They’ve learned from ex-President Trump that xenophobia is a potent political tool, and they want to preserve it for the campaign season,” he continued.
Menendez’s remarks came hours before he was scheduled to meet with President Joe Biden and other Democratic lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, to discuss the future of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, often known as Dreamers.
The late Thursday afternoon meeting was to also center on broader efforts to revise the immigration system through reconciliation, according to a congressional aide. Menendez said during the ABIC briefing that he intends to raise issues beyond Dreamers at the meeting.
After weeks of unsuccessful bipartisan talks, Democrats have decided to move forward on immigration alone, hedging their bets on creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants through budget reconciliation. That process allows measures directly affecting the federal budget to advance with a simple majority, instead of 60 votes.
However, their ability to pass immigration revisions without Republican votes hinges on an eventual ruling by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on whether such provisions would be eligible under Senate rules.
Menendez said he was “optimistic” that MacDonough would greenlight the efforts, stressing the significant and “indisputable” impact that legalizing undocumented immigrants would have on the U.S. economy.
“The parliamentarian of the Senate ultimately has the final decision,” he said. “But I know that she must read articles, see TV, listen to the radio just like anybody else. And the case that the reform will have economic impact of significant positive elements is ripe for reconciliation under the budget.”