The bipartisan immigration reform bill has made what appear to be strange bedfellows of Florida’s Republican rising star Marco Rubio and veteran New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez.
Beyond the fact that both are Cuban Americans, in the minds of many the two U.S. senators have been at seemingly polar opposites, almost as much as their two political parties.
If any one moment, though, has put them on common ground, it was the bipartisan press conference in Washington unveiling a new immigration reform proposal where Menendez and Rubio spontaneously translated their long speech in their native Spanish tongue, triggering a social media firestorm.
Suddenly in the minds of many, they were the Latino Butch and Sundance, Batman and Robin, Starsky and Hutch, Ruth and Gehrig.
But the gulf between the two lawmakers may not have been as wide as it might have appeared to some, especially in an area where Rubio and Menendez have long shared common ground: Latin America.
In 2011, not long after he came to the senate, Rubio joined Menendez in taking a principled stand against the Castro regime in Cuba by adding to the FAA funding bill an amendment barring new commercial flights from the U.S. to countries considered to be state sponsors of terror.
Last year Rubio and Menendez teamed on a resolution urging the Obama administration to condemn political violence in Nicaragua while calling for investigation from the Organization of American States on leftist revolutionary Daniel Ortega’s electoral win.
But it was immigration that was keeping Rubio and Menendez at arm’s length, representative of where the leadership of their two parties stood.
Rubio, though, was among the first Republicans who tried extending an olive branch, proposing his own version of the DREAM act, which, while repudiated by conservatives, showed that the Florida Republican was preparing for a bipartisan stand after the presidential election in which the GOP was repudiated by Latino voters, partly for its hardline position on immigration.
“This is a significant, complicated journey—but we have the opportunity to do it right,” Rubio said of the move to bipartisanship on the issue, though it may also have been a description of his own political maneuvering on immigration reform.
“And if we do, I think we’ll do a tremendous service to our country. And to its future.”
Of course, Menendez was already at the position where he finds himself on immigration reform, which may be why the spotlight has been so heavily on Rubio on this issue.
“I am the most optimistic I’ve been in quite some time,” says Menendez. “I recognize there are difficult challenges, but the spirit and commitment is far beyond what I’ve seen in a long time—and the American people support this.”
The recently elected Florida Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia has described Rubio’s immigration reform posture as a “migratory evolution” influenced by fellow Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, in which he has “found refuge in the position Mr. Diaz-Balart carved out for him.”
“It’s a statement that we have to modernize our legal immigration system,” Rubio says about the bipartisan immigration reform bill. “We have to have a real enforcement mechanism to ensure we’re never here again in the future, and we have to deal with the people here now in a way that’s responsible and humane.”
“And this does that.”