Menendez: immigration reform will help economy

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, during the committee's hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez joined a high profile coalition of Senators Monday afternoon to unveil an immigration reform platform that will help set the terms for a national debate on the contentious issue over the coming months.

“I am the most optimistic I have been in quite some time,” Menendez, a Democrat, said at an afternoon press conference carried live on cable news networks and featuring Senate heavyweights such as John McCain, Marco Rubio, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin. The press conference was jammed with cameras and reporters, leaving some to watch on televisions outside the room.

Menendez, who met with President Obama Friday, said today that the president promised that immigration reform is one of his top priorities. Menendez cast the issue in economic terms.

“If you got up this morning and had fruits for breakfast, it was probably picked by the bent back of a immigrant worker. If you in fact had ... chicken for lunch you probably had it de-plucked by the cut up hands of an immigrant worker,” Menendez said. He added that immigrants also contribute to developing “cutting-edge technology.” Part of the immigration plans calls for easing rules for highly educated workers.

“In so many dimensions this is about the economy of our nation as well,” said Menendez.

He has frequently been in the spotlight since his November re-election. He is also set to become chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is working to get a Superstorm Sandy relief bill through the Senate, with a vote scheduled this evening.

Menendez, a Democrat whose parents were born in Cuba, is one of only three Hispanics in the Senate and has worked on immigration plans for years, but the issue has been intractable. Since November’s election however, Republicans have increasingly lent their support to reform plans, many saying they need to appeal to Hispanics to stay viable in national elections.

Shortly after Election Day, Menendez said the results amounted to a “mandate” for immigration reform. He has since been one of eight Senators, four from each party, to work on the issue.

They came to an agreement on a “framework” for reform, that includes a path to citizenship for people already in the United States illegally, tougher border security and a reform of legal immigration procedures. They have not written a specific bill. Instead they laid out principles today, one day ahead of Obama’s scheduled speech on the issue.

The details of any immigration legislation still await, though, and House Republicans initially appear skeptical of the Senate principles.

“No one should be surprised that individuals who have supported amnesty in the past still support amnesty,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), according to the Washington Post.

Menendez gave an opening statement in English today, then switched to Spanish. Rubio, whose parents were also from Cuba, was next up to the podium. He turned to McCain and said: “John, I don’t agree with any of the stuff he just said about you in Spanish.”