Martinez Heats Up Immigration Debate

Martinez heats up immigration debate

By Gebe Martinez
The Politico (Washington, DC), March 18, 2009

As national Republican Party conservatives debate whether the partys tent is big enough for the more progressive leanings of its first African-American chairman, Michael Steele, another Republican leader has reignited his own cause that always threatens to blow the top off the tent.

Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the former Republican Party chairman who vividly remembers the 'variety of names' conservatives called him because of his work on immigrant rights, is readying for another big brawl over the issue.

Right now, months before President Barack Obama is expected to outline his own immigration plan and before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) decides how to re-engage on the issue presumably after Obama shows his hand Martinez is heating up the debate that will stretch his own partys tolerance for increased immigration and multiculturalism.

The Florida senator is in a hurry to lead on immigration: He has less than two years remaining in his self-limited single term in the Senate.

'We have got to come to an understanding' on immigration, Martinez implored recently at the National Council of La Razas gala, where he and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) were honored for their work on behalf of Hispanics. 'Comprehensive immigration reform has got to be back on the top of the agenda,' Martinez said. 'Its the right thing to do.'

Though Obama has promised to reform the immigration system, he has not decided when, leaving Martinez to conclude the delay shows a 'lack of direction or interest.' But clearly, the Republican senator is putting pressure on the Democratic White House because there is little hope of changing the minds of his own party members standing under the incredible shrinking Republican Party tent.

Conservative Republicans rejected Martinezs previous work with Kennedy on immigration bills that failed in the Senate in 2006 and 2007. (The second bill went down during Martinezs 10-month stint as national party chairman, which he jokingly described to talk show host Jon Stewart as a 'misguided adventure.')

'I think that the reality of all thats happened to our party in the last four years is beginning to dawn on people,' though not enough people, Martinez said later.

'I dont want to be too optimistic, but at the same time, I think there are [Republican] folks who understand the importance of this issue as a human rights issue as well as a political issue. I am sure many minds have not been changed as well, but I think its possible.'

Pushing ahead, the Republican senator plans to keep bringing up the subject that few in Washington are ready to take on. 'I want to be a little bit of an irritant until someone at the White House decides this needs to be on the agenda,' Martinez said.

At the recent NCLR dinner, the highest-ranking Hispanic Republican agonized over the plight of legal and illegal immigrants who are exploited in the workplace, are 'treated as half human beings' and live in fear of enforcement actions that may rip apart their families.

As one who fled Fidel Castros Cuba at 15, Martinez understands immigrants fears of arriving in a new country without knowing the language or the culture.

Martinez may want to team up with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus ongoing national campaign for a broad bill that would combine law enforcement and hefty legalization rules. The caucus hopes to take the bill to the House floor this fall.

The senator also can rebut the fear-mongering tactics of immigration restrictionists who have now added the battering recession to their list of reasons for limiting the number of immigrants in the U.S.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to restrict legal immigration, recently used questionable methodology to conclude that undocumented immigrants will be filling 300,000 construction jobs under the stimulus law. The CIS message: Out of work? An illegal immigrant just took your tax-funded job. Be afraid.

Immigrants rights and business groups argue there are still many jobs performed by immigrants that others will not touch, even in desperate times. Laid-off Microsoft computer engineers are not likely to seek work fixing roofs on high-rises or cleaning hotel toilets.

Heck, maybe the senator can persuade Jon Stewart to hold accountable the mad anti-immigration broadcasters/entertainers the way he did last week with CNBCs 'Mad Money' host Jim Cramer, the former money manager who hyped the stock market bubble on the business news network with dangerous consequences.

'Lou Dobbs is as corrosive as anybody on this [immigration] issue,' Martinez said of the CNN host.

Moving forward, Martinez will see the growing strength of the progressive movement. The political change, combined with the exponential growth of the foreign-born population over the next 40 years, signals 'the coming irrelevance of hard-line anti-immigration politics,' according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

Martinez concedes the issue takes more leadership than one senator from the minority party can provide. But 'I am going to keep talking about it,' he said. 'I am going to continue to keep the conversation alive, and if I have a chance to keep it in front of the Senate, I am going to be a voice for the voiceless.'

It could be his last chance.