Advocates fear would-be successors to Sen. Bob Menendez lack his commitment to immigrants

BY: SOPHIE NIETO-MUNOZ

Soon after Bob Menendez joined Congress in 1993, he earned a reputation as a leading voice for Latinos.

Menendez, a former mayor of Union City in Hudson County and the son of Cuban immigrants, was lauded for his constituent services, with his office aiding people through the citizenship process and helping them secure working papers. He joined the bipartisan “gang of eight” to push for major immigration reform, and often bucked his own party on issues related to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

He’s revered by the Latino community in Hudson County, where he returned to host massive parades and heritage events attended by thousands. He spoke to voters in English and Spanish, instilling a sense of pride in Hispanics who saw themselves represented on the national stage.

“He’s always been a real champion for immigrants,” said Kevin Brown, executive vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of Latino workers. “He played that role, and things have changed recently in terms of his position, but that was a historic function of his. We very much appreciated it.”

Soon after Bob Menendez joined Congress in 1993, he earned a reputation as a leading voice for Latinos.

Menendez, a former mayor of Union City in Hudson County and the son of Cuban immigrants, was lauded for his constituent services, with his office aiding people through the citizenship process and helping them secure working papers. He joined the bipartisan “gang of eight” to push for major immigration reform, and often bucked his own party on issues related to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

He’s revered by the Latino community in Hudson County, where he returned to host massive parades and heritage events attended by thousands. He spoke to voters in English and Spanish, instilling a sense of pride in Hispanics who saw themselves represented on the national stage.

“He’s always been a real champion for immigrants,” said Kevin Brown, executive vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of Latino workers. “He played that role, and things have changed recently in terms of his position, but that was a historic function of his. We very much appreciated it.”

 

Menendez is now facing federal charges that have soured voters against him and are all but sure to knock him out of power after three decades in D.C. Latino advocates say they’re gravely concerned about losing a powerful supporter of their community, and they worry the current front-runners to succeed him won’t fight for immigrants the way he has.

“These will be big shoes to fill, because Senator Menendez was a very strong advocate for immigrants,” said Eliana Fernandez of immigrant advocacy group Make the Road Action. “Whoever comes up next and takes the Senate seat will have to live up to the expectations that the community is going to have when it comes to advocating for the immigrants and being the voice they need.”

Four Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for Menendez’s seat. The two leaders in the most recent public poll of the race, Rep. Andy Kim (D-03) and First Lady Tammy Murphy, have views on immigration that are roughly similar. Both said they want to create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented residents, send more federal funds to states to address an influx of migrants, and secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

One of their Democratic opponents, Patricia Campos-Medina, said she believes that to continue Menendez’s legacy, candidates must have more detailed platforms on immigration policy and be willing to understand the minutiae of immigration law in a way she said her opponents don’t. Campos-Medina, who fled a civil war in El Salvador when she was 14, is the only immigrant in the race.

“Of course we all support immigration reform,” she said. “The devil is in the details about how you go about it, and what are the different components we look at.”


Patricia Campos-Medina said she has the most comprehensive plan for immigration reform among the Democrats seeking to replace Menendez. (Courtesy of the Campos-Medina campaign)

Filling Menendez’s shoes
Javier Robles has been involved in Latino advocacy in New Jersey for nearly 30 years. When he needed help from Menendez’s office, he said, he usually heard back within a day, while other congressional offices would give him the bureaucratic runaround.

Robles, president of the Latino Action Network, said losing Menendez’s voice in Congress will be a major blow to the state’s Latino community. Latinos make up over 20% of New Jersey’s population.

“He’s one of the most prominent Latinos visible at the federal level,” Robles said. “If we are to lose that position of a Latino representative who cares about immigrants, cares about issues for Latinos, cares about bread and butter issues — we expect whoever wins to take that on.”

Kerri Talbot spent five years as Menendez’s chief counsel and now serves as executive director of pro-immigrant group Immigration Hub in Washington, D.C. As one of few Latinos in Congress, Menendez served as a voice for an underrepresented community, Talbot said.

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  • Javier Robles
    published this page in Press & News 2024-02-11 17:50:05 -0500

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