Point man on divisive issue for the Senate

Florida Republican Mel Martinez must bridge a deep divide in his party to forge new immigration law.

Published March 30, 2006

WASHINGTON - Senators from Alabama, Oklahoma and Nebraska want to build a big, tall fence along the nation's southern border, the better to keep them from us, while several senators are balking at anything that hints at "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, citrus growers in Lakeland are short of pickers, Orlando hotels need housekeepers and there's a nervous Honduran woman, here illegally, who has cornered the Senate's first Cuban-American in the basement to beg for a law that would let her visit her mother back home, then return to Washington and the job she has held at the Senate for years.

All of which is why Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., is overbooked this week, dashing from closed-door meetings with skeptical Republican colleagues to interviews on C-SPAN and Spanish TV to a Wednesday morning speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose members fret that a crackdown on the nation's estimated 11-million illegal immigrants - including at least 500,000 in Florida - will drain the U.S. economy of badly needed labor.

"These individuals are living in the shadows of our communities ... and in the shadows of our law. We need to find ways to bring them into the fabric of our community," Martinez tells the friendly chamber crowd, which nods approval.

Being the Senate's only immigrant comes with a certain cachet, as well as obligations. As the U.S. Senate begins debate this week on a tangle of bills aimed at plugging the nation's porous borders and revamping its immigration system, that has never been more clear.

"I'd be ducking a very important part of my life if I didn't become involved in this issue, even though it's controversial and divisive," he said in an interview Wednesday with the St. Petersburg Times. "I didn't come up here just to endure."

Immigration reform is one of the most volatile issues the Senate will attempt this year, and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Republicans' public relations arm, tapped Martinez to be their point man.

Now he's charged with selling the importance of broad reform to Republican interest groups and skeptical Republican lawmakers, while reaching out to pro-immigrant organizations and Hispanic groups that have become increasingly important to Republican candidates in states like Florida.

It is by far the biggest job given Martinez since he joined the Senate a year ago. It also is extremely difficult, even for a seasoned lawmaker, because succeeding will mean bridging a deep divide among Republicans: Are illegal immigrants a vital part of the nation's work force, as many business groups contend? Or are they dangerous lawbreakers who threaten American jobs and culture?

For Martinez, the answer is as personal as it is practical. His parents sent him to Orlando from Cuba when he was 15, a history that gives him, and the GOP, credibility with Hispanics. But he favors more leniency than many of his Republican colleagues, who are pushing more border security and tougher sanctions for illegal immigrants.

Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., have proposed building a double-layer fence the interior length of the U.S.-Mexican border and bolstering it with the military. Others favor deporting illegal immigrants. Martinez calls such ideas "distasteful."

"This is a difficult issue because there are those in our country who feel, quite frankly, that we are full," Martinez told the chamber. "If that had been the prevailing view in 1962, I might not have the chance to be your senator today."

At each stop, Martinez touts the need for comprehensive reform: Tightening the borders is important, but not enough. The nation must expand its guest worker programs, to allow immigrants to fill millions of vacant agricultural, tourism and service jobs.

And real reform, he says, must include a mechanism for putting the nation's 11-million illegal immigrants on track toward legitimacy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a bipartisan bill that touches all three, while Frist has sponsored a bill focused on tough border control.

"I try very hard not to be used in things like this ever, so I've stuck to my rhetoric, which is comprehensive reform, even though it now looks like Frist and I might be at slightly different places," Martinez said. "But I've been speaking what I believe is the right thing, and he hasn't at all said, "Gee, don't talk like that.' "

Among the biggest allies for a more comprehensive approach are business groups, which say it's too hard for immigrant workers to come here legally to work in construction, hotels, nursing homes and agriculture.

Critics say allowing more immigrants to fill those jobs only encourages employers to keep paying low wages. But Laura Reiff, co-chairwoman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a consortium of businesses and trade associations that is working closely with Martinez, said many employers get few American takers even for jobs paying $9 to $14 an hour.

"We have to deal with the folks who are here and working, and fix the system that didn't allow them to come here legally in the first place," she said.

Debate began on Frist's measure late Wednesday, while debate on the broader Judiciary Committee bill is expected to begin today.

That bill would allow more temporary workers, particularly for agriculture, and let illegal aliens currently in the United States apply for a nonimmigrant visa good for six years, provided they pay taxes and a fine of $1,000.

They could then apply for legal permanent residence - a green card - after six years and citizenship after 11 years. It has the likely support of a handful of Republicans, including Martinez, and most Democrats, including Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson. President Bush favors a similar approach as well.

But many conservatives say it's far too permissive, and socially conservative groups, from the Family Research Council to the American Conservative Union, are fighting it as well, saying it comes too close to amnesty.

"I don't think folks who are here illegally should be offered a citizenship track when that's not even an option for guest-workers who are here legally," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Whatever passes the Senate must be reconciled with the House, which last year passed a tough bill - with broad support from Florida Republicans - aimed at increasing border security and targeting illegal immigrants and the companies that hire them. It makes no provision for those here already.

Martinez and his allies say providing a route to citizenship is the only feasible option.

He gives Republicans one more warning as well: Immigration reform has galvanized Hispanics like no other issue, and pushing draconian measures risks the gains the party has made among Hispanics thanks to outreach by politicians like him, Gov. Jeb Bush and President Bush.

"There's so many millions of us who were not born here but who view ourselves in that same light, who take such offense when people speak in disparaging words about Hispanic immigrants," he said.

"They should have told us they didn't want our vote if it was a problem, but they never did."

Even Republicans who don't agree with Martinez say he offers their party a sympathetic face for immigration reform.

In the past few weeks, Martinez has met with citrus growers in Lakeland and tourism officials in Orlando, with Florida hoteliers and contractors.

He also met recently with several Hispanic and pro-immigration groups.

"We know Sen. Martinez and we're glad he's at the front of this, because he lived it, and he knows it," said the Rev. Luis Cortez, president of Esperanza USA, a coalition of Hispanic churches and missions.

On Tuesday, Martinez spoke at the Senate Republicans' weekly policy luncheon, urging his colleagues to give illegal workers a chance, and asking senators to "rise above the rhetoric, the passion and look at it logically."

He told them, too, about the Honduran woman. "She's lived in this country for 16 years, has not seen her family for all of that time - 13 years she's worked for us in the dadgum U.S. Senate," Martinez said. "This is who these people are, and to regularize their status - to allow this lady to see her mom and come back and continue to contribute and then become a part of America - that's what we're trying to do."