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Martinez at heart of debate on citizenship

GOP colleagues pull him one way, fellow immigrants another.

Published May 26, 2007

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez is interviewed on Capitol Hill about border security and enforcement provisions proposed in the Senate immigration bill.
[Getty Images]

WASHINGTON -- These days, Mel Martinez begins each morning in a room just off the Senate floor listening to 11 of his colleagues argue the intricacies of a potentially historic immigration proposal.

Sometimes, Martinez tries to lighten the intense atmosphere that builds up when polar opposites debate an emotional issue. Other times, the Senate's only immigrant sits quietly in an overstuffed crimson leather chair only to have someone ask: "Mel, certainly you have an opinion about this?"

Martinez is one of the so-called "Gang of 12" senators who are taking the lead on one of the hottest topics on Capitol Hill -- trying to preserve the fragile legislative compromise that would give 12-million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

But for Martinez, Florida's junior senator, that comfortable room is not always the easiest place to be.

Many Republicans accuse Martinez -- their party's chairman -- of being too lenient on illegal immigrants, repeatedly calling the bill's path to citizenship an "amnesty."

Many immigrant advocates accuse Martinez -- a Cuban-American who came to the United States legally at the age of 15 -- of not doing enough to help immigrants achieve the rights and respect they deserve.

"The center can be a very lonely place," said John Pitney, a former RNC official who teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College. "When opinions are this polarized, you are getting hit from both sides."

Martinez, 60, a former Cabinet secretary, said in an interview this week that he tries to ignore the attacks. Instead, he said, he is guided by his unwavering belief that what he is doing is right.

"I don't pay a lot of attention," he said. "It's so clear what I need to do for the nation, for the state, for my party. I don't feel torn inside about what I am doing."

The Senate proposal would expand the guest worker program, provide employers with new ways to verify the legal status of workers and increase security on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The full Senate began considering the bill this week and will resume debate in June after next week's Memorial Day recess.

Now in his third year in office, Martinez said he has never seen such a public outcry over a single issue.

Most of the calls and e-mails coming into his Senate office are from people who oppose the bill. But, he says, most of the comments he gets when he travels the state are from people who support it.

Immigrant groups, some of which have honored Martinez in the past, want at least two significant changes in the bill that would allow guest workers to apply for citizenship and immigrants to be granted legal residency based on their family ties.

One of those groups, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, has held prayer vigils outside Martinez's offices in Tampa, Orlando, Pensacola and Miami. Another, the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, has targeted Martinez through print and radio ads.

"It's clear he is a national player," said Maria Rodriguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "But he needs to represent the interests of Florida. He worries too much about his party and not enough about Florida."

Martinez was handpicked by President Bush for the job as party chairman to help Republicans win back Congress and keep the White House. He is being counted on to woo Hispanic voters, a fast-growing group whose support for the Republican Party faltered in the last election.

"No question that if this important bill passes, Mel Martinez is one of the Republicans that will get credit," said Joe Garcia of the New Democrat Network, which courts Hispanics. "I wish it was a better bill, but Mel Martinez is on the right side of history."

Martinez and Bush are in agreement on the Senate immigration bill, but much of their party is not -- a fact that is likely to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters in future elections.

Clarissa Martinez, campaign manager for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, wants Martinez to think about those Hispanic voters and do more to make the Senate bill more friendly to immigrants.

"As chairman he should think of the longevity of the party," she said.

For months, a handful of senators -- Republicans and Democrats -- spent a few hours a couple of times a week behind closed doors hashing out a proposal with White House advisers. Later, after a bill was introduced, the group began meeting twice a day -- in the morning and evening - to strategize about keeping the bill intact under a barrage of dozens of amendments.

The group's leaders are Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Martinez sees his role as trying to keep the group focused, as well as conveying his unique perspective as an immigrant.

"A lot of us don't feel like they're speaking for us, that this idea that we can't offer an amendment or it's going to blow up the deal is a bunch of nonsense," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who wants to remove the citizenship part of the bill.

Last year, the Senate passed a bill that Martinez helped write though it failed in the House. But Martinez says his experience this year is far different -- sitting in a room with Republicans and Democrats trying to come up with a deal - but one that he considers more in line with what people think senators should do.

"It has been so long that people may have forgotten how a bipartisan compromise looks and smells," Martinez said. "It has strong opposition from either extreme, but a good broad center."

Anita Kumar can be reached at or (202) 463-0576.

Sen. Mel Martinez
Born in Cuba 60 years ago, arrived in America at 15.
Education: Bachelor's and law degrees from Florida State University.
Family: Married 36 years to Kitty; has three children and two grandchildren.
Career: Lawyer, former Orange County chairman, former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development. Elected to the Senate in 2004.


The Senate immigration bill
The bill, supported by Sen. Mel Martinez, includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants after eight years if they meet certain criteria and return to their home country. It would also change the criteria for legal immigration by focusing more on the needs of the U.S. market and less on family considerations. It would expand the guest worker program, create a stronger verification system for employers and increase border security.

[Last modified May 26, 2007, 00:07:57]

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