NJ Sen. Robert Menendez seeks support for immigration reform bill

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez plans to reach out to a South Carolina Republican to craft a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the next Congress.

But it’s not clear that Sen. Lindsey Graham will want to work with the top-ranking Hispanic Democrat on Capitol Hill.

Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said last week his boss wants Congress to pass a 10-point plan to boost border security before attempting to overhaul the immigration system.

Menendez introduced an immigration reform bill just before the Nov. 2 elections that he said takes a middle-of-the-road approach, incorporating ideas that Republicans such as Graham, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah have presented in the past.

Menendez said in December that Graham has expressed interest in writing a bipartisan bill.

“If he is, then what I hope to do is to draft something together that will have some level of bipartisan support,” Menendez said. “If that doesn’t happen in a reasonable time period, then I’d like to introduce the bill again (in the next Congress) as a foundation to get something moving. If there’s nothing to have hearings about, nothing to debate over, you will never move forward.”

But Bishop said Menendez and Graham haven’t discussed working on an immigration bill.

The Menendez proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would eventually legalize illegal immigrants, improve border security, crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and make it easier for legal residents to bring family members to the U.S.

Graham has a history of working across party lines and often has been the only Republican willing to buck his party to strike political compromises. But that approach may be politically risky now that the GOP has turned more conservative under the influence of the Tea Party movement.

In 2007, Graham joined Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in pushing hard for an immigration reform bill that Menendez helped write. But the measure died in the Senate, with Menendez ultimately voting against it because some of his proposals had been stripped out. The measure never reached the House.

In 2010, Graham collaborated with another liberal Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer of New York, on an immigration reform plan that called for legalizing about 11 million illegal immigrants and improving border security. The two discussed the proposal with President Barack Obama at the White House.

But Graham quickly ended that partnership, accusing Democrats of politicizing the issue and citing his opposition to the Democratic health care reform bill.

Aggressive GOP opposition to Democratic immigration plans was evident during the lame-duck session when Republican senators — along with some Democrats — teamed up to kill the DREAM Act, which offered the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they completed two years of university or military service.

“Illegal immigration is a nightmare for America,” Graham said in a December statement after the DREAM Act died. “Giving a pathway to citizenship without first securing the border is an inducement to encourage more illegal immigration. This is nothing more than a political game by the Democrats to try and drive a wedge between the Hispanic community and Republicans.”

The DREAM Act’s failure lessens chances that a broader immigration bill will pass a deeply partisan Congress, Menendez acknowledged.

“These are . . . children who came to this country through no decision of their own,” he said. “They were brought here by their parents. Overwhelmingly, they only know America as their country. . . . If you can’t get (the DREAM Act) agreed to, then I think the rest of it will be a lot more hard sledding.”

In April, Arizona enacted the nation’s toughest immigration enforcement law, which allows police to detain and question people about their immigration status. The administration is challenging the law in court. Several other states are likely to pass similar legislation.

In response, Congress approved legislation — which became law in August — providing $600 million in emergency funding for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, 250 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and unmanned Predator drones to patrol the border.