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Updated Jun 13, 2024, 5:59am EDT
politics

‘We’ve taken a hit’: Immigration activists are starting to miss Bob Menendez

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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The News

In the eyes of immigration advocates, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez’s legal troubles couldn’t have come at a worse moment.

For decades, the once-powerful Democratic senator was seen as a critical ally who used his sway to push for legalization of the undocumented and prevent the deportations of Dreamers.

But thanks to a corruption trial that has sapped his influence in the upper chamber and kept him away from the US Capitol, Menendez has been largely AWOL from the immigration debate as the White House has leaned hard into border enforcement policies many Democrats not long ago would have considered unthinkable.

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“It’s devastating to lose Menendez,” one advocate from an immigrants’ rights group, who was provided anonymity to speak candidly, told Semafor. “He was the only one willing to go hard to fight for things.”

“We’ve taken a hit,” a second advocate told Semafor. “He was such a strong champion, and it’s hard to replicate his ability to push his priorities in the Senate.”

Menendez, who recently filed to run for reelection as an independent, has consistently maintained his innocence and blamed “overzealous prosecutors” for his troubles. He missed scores of votes throughout May, and the New Jersey Globe reported last week that he’s now managing his own campaign with no staff. In the latest departure from his office, Menendez chief of staff Jason Tuber is taking a job in the private sector after nearly two decades with the senator.

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Menendez’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Step Back

Menendez was key in prodding the Obama administration to suspend deportations of young undocumented immigrants in June 2012 through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — aka DACA — and played a part of the so-called “Gang of Eight” in 2013 that yielded an immigration reform bill that would have paired a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants along with tougher border enforcement.

“I’ve seen him in action and involved in every single immigration fight at the highest level,” Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, told Semafor. “So of course he’s missed in the voting and in the day to day, but I also believe his staff is involved. We need more champions, not fewer champions.”

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In the spring of last year, Menendez offered a list of executive actions to the Biden administration that he argued would help deal with the migrant crisis at the Southern border in a more humane way, while publicly worrying that the president might become the “asylum denier-in-chief.”

But when President Biden finally issued an executive order limiting asylum last week, Menendez took until the next day to release a relatively short, critical statement. “I am deeply concerned with how the President’s executive order drastically limits access to asylum for those fleeing violence and persecution,” he said.

With Menendez trying to fend off federal corruption charges in a New York courtroom, immigration advocates and progressives increasingly view Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., as the new leader on immigration reform in the Senate.

“As far as I’m concerned, Senator Padilla is the strongest voice for our community that we have in the Senate and in Congress,” Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., told Semafor. “He’s super serious, and he’s super smart.”

Immigrant advocates that spoke to Semafor credited Padilla with keeping up the push for immigration reform in an unforgiving political landscape. But there’s some concern he may not be as confrontational as Menendez.

Frustrated over bipartisan border negotiations that excluded Latino lawmakers last year, Menendez blasted the Biden administration and placed holds in December on a pair of agriculture-related nominees and derailed their speedy consideration in the Senate. (Both were ultimately confirmed at the end of February.)

“The reason that Menendez had been effective being the bully pulpit on this is because he was actually willing to fight leadership and the White House,” the first immigrant advocate said. “Padilla has not yet shown that he’s willing to pick a fight with leadership, demand things and force votes on good immigration policies.”

Padilla aides pushed back and said the California senator has been increasingly outspoken in his condemnation of Biden’s executive order. “When it comes to immigration, he’s going up against leadership, Schumer and President Biden, calling him out very publicly,” a Padilla aide said. “I wouldn’t describe that as non-combative. I think he definitely has a different style but when push comes to shove, he does fight.”

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Room for Disagreement

Menendez’s absence deprives immigration advocates of an ally they often relied on in the Senate. But the arc of immigration politics is bending towards enforcement, and it’s unclear that the presence of a more pugnacious advocate would change the Biden administration’s approach right now.

Some also insist Menendez is still a key player on immigration, even if he’s spending less time in the Capitol these days. “Sen. Menendez continues to take the lead on these issues and has been outspoken,” Sen. Ben Ray-Lujan, D-N.M., told Semafor.

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