WASHINGTON - To Sen. Bob Menendez, Hispanic voters sent a clear message last week, one so forceful that it changed the dynamics on immigration law and perhaps cleared a path to a sweeping overhaul, with even Republicans on board.
"The math is clear. And the mandate is clear," Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and one of two Hispanics in the Senate, said Wednesday at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. "This election was a mandate to enact comprehensive immigration reform, and the electorate was especially focused on legalization of the 11 million new Americans present in the U.S. who lack status."
Republicans, stung by exit polls showing more than 70 percent of Latino voters supported President Obama, are newly receptive to reform, Menendez said. He said their ranks include those who have long worked on the issue, plus others who "you wouldn't normally think are interested."
"The numbers created a clear sense to them that if they want to be a party that can contend nationally, they're going to have to redefine their position on this, and I think the president's going to use a lot of capital to make this happen," Menendez said later in an interview at his office.
He spoke just hours after Obama said his staff was working with lawmakers on immigration legislation that can be introduced early next year. "We need to seize the moment," Obama said at a White House news conference. "Some conversations, I think, are already beginning to take place."
The developments mean that Menendez, born in New York and raised in North Jersey after his parents emigrated from Cuba, could find himself in the middle of a debate fraught with arguments over how wide to open the nation's doors.
"He's a critical player in that it's an issue that he's been working on for a long time," said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington and cofounder of Latino Decisions, a polling firm.
In polls of Latino voters, Baretto said, 31 percent said they would more likely vote Republican if the party led the way on immigration reform. The issue "directly causes the Republican Party to leave votes on the table," he said.
Menendez, who won easy reelection Nov. 6, could be in line for a step up. If Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) joins the cabinet, Menendez would be in line to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He declined to speculate about this Wednesday.
Immediately after the election, Menendez said, he spoke with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has since publicly voiced support for immigration reform. So have Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) the Senate's other Latino member, is also expected to be a key voice on the issue.
Menendez said lesser-known lawmakers, whom he declined to name, have expressed interest as well.
He has a broad plan that includes a path to legalization for illegal immigrants already in the country, provided they pay taxes, learn English, and meet other requirements; added visas for students in science, technology, engineering and math; and "reasonable enforcement."
Menendez said he hoped to work out the details in collaboration with Republicans.
It's unrealistic to expect that all resistance has ceased. Some conservatives have long labeled immigration reform "amnesty" for lawbreakers, and called for crackdowns on people living here without proper documentation.
Since the election, though, those voices have quieted and some conservative commentators have shifted stances. Fox News' Sean Hannity, for one, said he had "evolved" on the issue.
Such changes in tone can help pave the way to a bipartisan deal, Menendez said.
"The air war that they deal with, where any initiative is already branded 'amnesty' and therefore has a much more pejorative connotation to it, makes it much more difficult," he said at the Wednesday event. "I actually welcome Hannity's evolution. If our colleagues are left to their own devices, I think we will have the wherewithal to create a sufficient-enough common ground to move forward."