Immigration May Figure in NJ's Close Senate Race

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:31pm EDT

( - If Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. pulls off an upset victory against incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez in New Jersey next month, New Jersey will gain an advocate for tighter border security.

If he were a member of the U.S. Senate, Kean would have voted in favor of legislation authorizing construction of a double-layered 700 mile security fence, said Jill Hazelbaker, his press secretary. The Secure Border Act of 2006 passed the full Senate last week by a margin of 80-19. Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) both voted against the measure.

The legislation calls for barriers to be constructed along the most porous sections of California, Arizona and Texas. A separate homeland security bill passed on Saturday provides about $1 billion in funding as a down payment for the fence.

Kean has distinguished himself from New Jersey's incumbent senators by favoring an "enforcement first" approach to immigration reform that is more in tune with the House Republicans. While he strongly supports legal immigration, Kean told Cybercast News Service that in the post-9/11 world he believes it is necessary to close vulnerable stretches along the nation's borders that could be exploited by terrorists.

He said he views the security fence as just a first step toward broader immigration reform. Kean also said he favors legislation that would provide for additional border agents, detention facilities and the use of high technology at points of entry.

If elected, Kean said he would work to maintain a welcoming attitude toward legal immigrants. But at the same time, he would encourage his colleagues to uphold the rule of law. Kean told Cybercast News Service that he opposes the Senate's "comprehensive" immigration bill (S. 2611) because he believes it contains too many "amnesty" provisions. He also criticized Menendez for supporting the legislation.

Specifically, Kean expressed opposition toward language in the Senate bill that he claims would make it possible for illegal aliens to collect social security and other government benefits.

"I would have opposed the Senate bill because it granted a direct path to citizenship and because it granted amnesty to people who entered this country illegally and broke our laws," he said. "I don't see how we can send a message to the world that says the easiest path to success in this country is to break the law."

Political analysts and pollsters who spoke with Cybercast News Service said it is difficult to find tangible statistical evidence linking public policy positions on immigration reform with likely voting patterns. Nevertheless, they do see anecdotal evidence suggesting that key blocks of voters who normally support the Democratic candidate in N.J. are withholding support thus far, and they say immigration could figure into the equation.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University-Gannett New Jersey Poll, cited "underlying trends" and "unspoken effects" associated with immigration that may explain the lack of enthusiasm some Democrats and Independents have toward the Menendez campaign.

"A good chunk of Democrats are holding back," Murray said. "If they have negative attitudes toward immigration they are more likely to be undecided."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, the latest Monmouth Poll shows Kean leading Menendez by six points among likely voters. When voters were asked, in the same poll, which candidate better shared their views on immigration, Murray found a slight preference for Kean.

But the most important factor that stands beyond statistical measurement may be the Hispanic name attached to the Democratic candidate, which translates into a lack of support among independents who traditionally lean Democratic, Murray said.

This sentiment is shared by Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for politics.

"The voter's mind can work in mysterious ways," he said. "The people I talk to you in New Jersey in both parties tell me they think Menendez's Hispanic origin is costing him in various ways."

Recent events indicate that opposition to illegal immigration in N.J. finds expression when residents see a correlation with rising costs. The township committee in Riverside, N.J., voted unanimously this past summer in favor of passing an ordinance that would impose penalties on individuals who provide either housing or jobs to illegal aliens. The ordinance provides penalties of up to $1,000 and makes it possible for employers to lose their local business license.

Sen. Menendez has voiced opposition to the Riverside ordinance. Kean told Cybercast News Service the Riverside ordinance was a byproduct of local frustration with inaction on Capitol Hill. Moreover, Kean says, his opponent is partly responsible for the "hyper-partisanship" that has contributed to the stagnation on Capitol Hill, particularly with regard to immigration policy.

"I personally don't think municipalities should be setting national policy," Kean said. Instead, he says independent voices are needed on Capitol Hill that seek to build consensus so legislation can move in a timely fashion.

Despite the disparities that exist between the House and Senate immigration bills, Kean points out that there are areas of convergence on border security that can serve as the foundation for constructive legislation.

"Bob Menendez always reaches into his partisan corner, as opposed to reaching across the aisle to find common solutions," Kean said. "He's been in Congress for 14 years blaming others for what he hasn't done."

Repeated phone calls to the Menendez campaign seeking comment on immigration policy and border security legislation were not returned.

Polls show that Kean is either slightly ahead or tied with Menendez in a state that has not elected a Republican as senator since 1972.

Kean is a state senator and the son of a popular former governor. Menendez served as congressman in Hudson County for 14 years prior to being appointed senator in January - replacing Democrat Jon Corzine, who vacated the seat to become the state's governor.

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