Employers would have to verify that they could not get an American worker first.
The Senate immigration reform bill that passed Thursday was a victory for the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of senators that shepherded the legislation through the process.
An amendment by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that strengthened border security brought other Republicans on board. The final vote was 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining Senate Democrats and two independents to pass the bill. In addition to beefing up border security, the bill delineates a path to citizenship, after people here illegally come forward, pay taxes and a fine. Only after the border measures have been completed does the 10-year clock toward citizenship begin to tick.
Now the action moves to the House of Representatives -- Republican-controlled, and with few willing to follow the bipartisan example of the Senate. House Speaker John Boehner said his caucus's leadership will come up with its own bill.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Gang of Eight, spoke with Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio about the Senate bill and the challenges ahead.
Q. How does this Senate vote affect the House bill?
A. I think the strong bipartisan vote in the Senate is a strong message to the House that there is no reason not to pursue immigration. It's a bipartisan point of view. The eyes of the whole nation will be on the House of Representatives.
Q. What is the significance of the added border security measures and its cost?
A. It was the cost of ultimately achieving bipartisan support. I was willing to listen to my colleagues in the Gang from border states reflecting views of their Republican caucus. Border security was a threshold question for them, as a path to citizenship was for me. So we accepted the Hoeven-Corker amendment as a way to move forward.
Q. Has the bill shifted focus from family reunification to visas for workers with useful skills?
A. We preserve elements of family reunion as a core principle of our immigration policy. Eighteen months after the law becomes effective, siblings and adult children up to the age of 31 can apply for green cards. Under the existing system people have waited a decade or two before unification.
This bill dramatically increases the number of visas to decrease the backlog. And when you become a green card holder, you can have your immediate family come here while their status application is pending.
Q. If I am an American citizen who drives a truck or cuts lawns for a living, isn't this going to make it harder for me to get a job, or get a raise?
A. The Congressional Budget Office dispelled that myth. It said wages of all Americans would rise over a 10-year period.
By bringing the undocumented out of the shadows, and having them register with the government, you cannot allow them to be exploited with lower wages that put downward pressure on all wages. We put in very significant provisions where an American worker capable of doing the job will have first shot at it. Employers would have to verify that they could not get an American worker first.
Q. When the last major immigration reform passed in 1986, supporters said it would halt illegal immigration, and it did not. In fact, it increased. Will that happen again?
A. I believe between the unprecedented border security provisions of this legislation and the critical enhancement of the entry-exit visa program (to better track who has overstayed a visa), you can't afford to stay here illegally.
So beyond border control, you are unlikely to see a repeat of that. And the HB1 and 2 visas and other categories all will help ensure we have a regularized flow of workers in ways that don't displace American workers.
Q. Will the influx of Latino voters help Democrats in the long run? Is that one reason most Republicans are opposed?
A. There are a couple of things going on. Some Republicans are ideologically opposed to reform, and some cannot support a pathway to citizenship. I cannot change their minds.
I think those opposed should know there are political consequences. There is no pathway to the White House without a pathway to citizenship. Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Obama and Congressional Democrats in 2012, which helped us break through on this issue.
Republicans have to change their political views relating to immigrants, how they speak about them and what they're willing to do to reform the system.