Sen. Robert Menendez

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One of only three Hispanics in the U.S. Senate, the foreign relations committee chair weighs in on U.S. policy, including on Egypt, Ukraine and immigration reform.

In 2006, Democrat Robert Menendez became the first person of color to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate. He previously served in the House and chaired the Democratic Caucus, becoming the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congressional history. The NY native began his public service career in college, at age 19, when he led a successful petition drive to reform the school board, and has served as a school board member, mayor and state legislator. Menendez sits on several committees, including as chair of Foreign Relations. A vocal advocate of immigration reform, he's also the author of Growing American Roots, which examines the influence of the Latino population on American society.


Tavis: Senator Robert Menendez is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and is also the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has its hands full these days, of course, with the escalation of violence in Ukraine and the collapse of the democratic movement in Egypt.

He joins us tonight from Capitol Hill. Senator Menendez, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Sen. Robert Menendez: Good to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start with immigration. There are those who believe that if nothing happens to advance this ball down the field by June, nothing will happen, period. Do you take that kind of critique as accurate or inaccurate?

Menendez: Well certainly the window of opportunity is closing fast with congressional elections this year in the House and the Senate. It makes for a very truncated legislative year, and the Senate passing a strong, bipartisan vote nearly a year ago, legislation that has not even had a chance on the House floor.

So I won’t necessarily subscribe to it’s June or nothing, but I do believe that the window of opportunity is closing fast on us, because afterwards we’ll be in an election cycle and I doubt this will be a lame duck issue.

So we just have a few months left for an opportunity for millions of people, and for real important policy decisions that flow from immigration reform for the United States.

Tavis: All right, so whether it’s June or not, to your point, you do believe, though, that the window is closing and that we only have a certain amount of time here, weeks, in fact, to get something done given that we are in an election season.

Let me ask you, then – of course I’m not naïve in asking this – but to your mind, Senator Menendez, why is it that this issue has not been given a fair hearing, an up-or-down vote, in the House?

Menendez: Well it’s purely House Republican politics. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to the Speaker, that he actually wants to get something done, but he has some of the most intransigent members of his caucus as part of the Tea Party and a few other ultra-conservatives who view immigration reform not with the promise that so many of us in a bipartisan way viewed in the Senate, but as something that is pejorative.

He seems to be held hostage to that element in his caucus. So it’s about his caucus’s politics and his own standing in terms of the Speaker with his caucus. Because I’m convinced, Tavis, that if the legislation we passed in the Senate with 67 votes would go to the House floor, that it would pass with a bipartisan vote; mostly Democrats strongly supporting it, but also Republicans who understand the power of this issue, the necessity and the imperative to get it done, the economic opportunities that flow from it, as well as the national security questions that are derived from it.

So it’s a shame that we can vote dozens of times to end the Affordable Care Act, put some pejorative immigration legislation on the floor, but not cast one single vote on the Senate bill, which I believe would pass.

Tavis: So you’re telling me that a handful of people in the House can hold up the will of the entire nation, and you don’t see a way around that?

Menendez: Well Tavis, here’s the problem. Over in the House of Representatives, which I served for 14 years in, the new Republican majority has a rule that they’ve established in which they say that only what a majority of the existing majority – therefore, a majority of Republicans – agree to can come to the House floor.

The problem with that, as you well point out, that a majority of the House Republican majority is a minority of the House of Representatives as a whole, and therefore a minority of the voice of the American people.

Now there is a procedure that House Democrats are pursuing, which is what they call a “discharge petition,” which is if you can’t get a piece of legislation to the floor because the Republican leadership blocks it, then members are free to sign a petition that says bring this legislation to the floor.

If it gets 218 signatures, which is one more than half of the House of Representatives necessary to bring that bill to the floor, then that’s the only other alternative. Until that time in which 218 members sign a petition, we are at the whim of the Republican leadership in the House, and of their minority within their caucus.

Tavis: What agency, then, do the American people have in advancing this issue? And notice I asked not the Hispanic community but the American people. What agency do we have in advancing this if those are the rules?

Menendez: Well that’s the challenge here of the Congress. The Senate passed with 67 votes, a broad, bipartisan bill. I thought that was going to create a lot of impetus in the House of Representatives, give the leadership there cover, the Republican leadership cover.

The only thing left then will be the question of what the president is left to do in the failure of the House of Representatives to act. What discretion he ultimately has in exercising his powers in determining how he enforces the law and certain precedents that exist in the past under the Department of Homeland Security, which is now led by Jay Johnson.

It is my hope that of course we can pass the law; that’s the ultimate solution here. But in the absence of passing the law, we have certainly urged the president to use the maximum of his discretion and his way in which he enforces the law.

So that we’re prioritizing criminal aliens, which I want to see deported as much as anyone else, but are not deporting parents who made paperwork violations and ultimately have deported over 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, which over 5,000 of them now being in foster care. That simply is not humane, not in the interests of the United States, and not what we stand for as a country.

Tavis: You were tough on the Republicans. Let me ask you a question now, since you raised it. Let me ask you a question about President Barack Obama, who of course once served in the Senate alongside you, but is now the president of these United States.

There are those in the Hispanic community, I had some of them as my guest on this program a couple of weeks ago, who feel that the president has not done enough, number one, on this issue; number two, that he’s had to be pushed awfully hard to do what he has done, and number three, that there’s still more that he could do, namely on the issue of deportations.

I could run the list; you know the list better than I do. But there are people who think he really has not been as aggressive, as progressive as he should be on this. So it’s one thing to beat up on the Republicans in the House and nobody’s going to stop you from doing that. But has President Barack Obama done enough on this issue?

Menendez: Well look, let me answer your question in this way. Number one, I believe President Obama truly believes in immigration reform, I believe that he was in – I know, not I believe, I know he was incredibly supportive during the Senate process, including when we asked him to, in a large degree, simply let us work our way so that the Republicans wouldn’t use him as an excuse for not joining us in immigration reform, and he did.

He made it very clear what his principles were on immigration reform, he helped where he could. But he largely let us work out way. He has called upon the House leadership to have immigration reform.

He has brought up the interested parties across the nation, from civil rights groups to immigration reform advocates to business to labor to a whole wide range of faith-based organizations that all support immigration reform, and try to use his bully pulpit to move the House.

So in that score I think the president has done what he can. However, where he has not done what he can, and I understand the politics of it and the challenges he’ll have for doing the right thing, is in creating the space and using the power of his discretionary authority under the law to make sure that we prioritize criminal aliens but not families.

To maximize the ability of making sure that how he uses the budget for the Department of Homeland Security vis-à-vis ICE, which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is used to get those people who have committed a crime out of the country, but to give flexibility to those people who just made a paperwork violation and/or overstayed a legitimate visa.

Ultimately, if the Republicans don’t act in the House of Representatives to give further discretionary relief, along the line what he gave the Dreamers, which would give deferred deportation and an opportunity to have this legislation work its way and not have families get torn apart.

In that respect, we have called upon the people to do more, and I believe when it comes a point in time in which he sees that the House of Representatives, if that’s what happens, doesn’t act, I believe that he will act, and we’ll applaud him at that time.

Tavis: All right. We will see what happens there, because when you say you understand the politics of it, I think, and I’m not the only one that feels this way, that some issues are above politics.

This to me, Senator, respectfully, is an issue of morality, and for a U.S. Senator to say, “I understand the politics of it,” as if somehow that excuses it, as if somehow he ought not to be pushed to do the right thing on the moral question, I think to the extent you allow him or any other president to skate because you understand the politics of it, rather than pushing him on that after all the time that’s passed and you just said earlier that the window is closing, I don’t – I’m having a hard time juxtaposing those two points of view.

Menendez: Oh, I just said, Tavis, that I understand the politics of it. I’m not excusing his unwillingness –

Tavis: OK.

Menendez: – at this point to use some of that. I just understand the challenges you have. For example, the Republicans in the House of Representatives will excoriate him –

Tavis: But he’s not running –

Menendez: – and say he’s violating the law.

Tavis: But he’s not running – first of all, again, it’s a moral issue, number one, and number two, he’s not standing for reelection anymore.

Menendez: I agree with you.

Tavis: What’s to lose?

Menendez: I agree with you. I agree with you.

Tavis: Okay. Let me switch gears right quick in the two minutes I have left. Cuba, for the 33rd year, was just put again on the list of terrorist nations. Is it time to review that policy? What say you about that?

Menendez: No, on the contrary, Cuba was a country sending arms to North Korea in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions. The biggest violation, according to the Security Council arms experts, that has come in years of any country sending missiles and other equipment to North Korea.

So if they don’t understand that the violation of international norms with what is a pariah, in this case North Korea, is not acceptable, in addition to the housing of a whole host of individuals who are wanted in the United States, including the killer of a New Jersey state trooper just to start on the list, no, they deserve to be on the list. That has not changed, from my perspective.

Tavis: On the same list with Sudan and Syria?

Menendez: Yes. They’re all for different reasons, obviously, but if you go ahead and put under tons of sugar and hide missiles, MiGs and other military equipment sent to North Korea that was intercepted in Panama, and then it was disclosed.

Are you not engaging with a state that has, by the international community, not the U.S., been found to be violating international norms and that has nuclear weapons, ones that we don’t want to see proliferate?

They are sending weapons to a system. I don’t think that that absolves them of anything except they should be on the terrorist list.

Tavis: This story is changing literally by the hour, it seems, so I don’t know what will happen in the hours between now and the time this conversation airs. But since you are head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, what say you now about this grey area, for lack of a better phrase, that we are in with Russia on this Ukraine issue?

Menendez: This is incredibly important, Tavis, because we must be resolute, along with our European allies. Putin only understands strength, and in this case the wide array of potential sanctions against Russia have to be seriously considered and pursued if we want them to stop being the aggressor in the Ukraine and beyond.

Finally, the rest of the world is watching. Iran is watching as we negotiate with them to stop their nuclear arms race, China’s watching as they want to go into the South China Sea and take over territories that we believe belong to Japan and South Korea.

North Korea is going to look and say how far does the West and the United States pursue this? This has not only real consequences for the Ukraine and European security moving forward, but global consequences in how we and the European Union act.

Tavis: Democrat out of New Jersey Robert Menendez is chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the United States Senate. Senator Menendez, always, sir, an honor to have you on the program. Thanks for your time tonight.

Menendez: Great to be with you, Tavis. Thank you.

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Last modified: May 9, 2014 at 3:39 pm