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The Record, Bergen County, NJ

Menendez: White House Offers Cool Reception


April 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.

WHEN HE VISITED the White House many times during the last eight years, it was to meet his friend and fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. Rep. Robert Menendez, D-Union City, didn't always get what he wanted, but he did fairly well when Clinton was president.

Let's face it, Clinton had a lot of faults, but when it came to the minority issues that concern Menendez, the former president had a sympathetic ear.

My, how things have changed.

When Menendez went to the White House again last week for a long- delayed meeting with President George W. Bush, it was as a member of the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 18 Latino Democrats who now find themselves rowing against the tide.

"We wanted to talk to the president about the issues that are very important to the Hispanic community, but we concentrated only on three issues," Menendez said. "There are many other issues, but since the time he gave us was very short, we wanted to focus on a few key issues."

They chose immigration, education, and economic development. What they found, Menendez said, is a president long on rhetoric and short on commitment.

Only one significant issue made some headlines as a result of the caucus meeting with Bush. The media reported that Bush told Latino lawmakers that he opposes an amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

Nevertheless, some caucus members Democrats, mind you said they were "optimistic" because Bush showed a "genuine concern" for illegal immigrants.

But when the discussion got down to specifics, Menendez said that what little he heard from Bush was very discouraging.

"On all the immigration issues even if it's not a general amnesty, on other legislation to help Central Americans, for example the president didn't show that he is willing to work with us," Menendez said. "The only thing that he told us regarding immigration is that he is willing to consider a bill to give temporary visas to people who come to work in this country."

Menendez said the Latino lawmakers told the president they would support such a program if these mostly agricultural workers were given, after some time, an opportunity to legalize their status and stay here.

"But on that point he told us he didn't agree," Menendez added. "So at least in this meeting, we didn't accomplish anything."

OK. That's immigration down the drain, thanks to the "compassionate conservative" who was expected to have a sympathetic ear for Latino issues. Strike one.

But what about education and economic development?

Menendez said the president's budget makes serious cuts to education programs that benefit Latino children in public schools and "Hispanic-serving institutions of higher learning" universities where at least 25 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Menendez said that since the average Latino in this country is about 10 years younger than the population overall, "in the future, while the rest of the nation gets older, ours will be the community which can offer more people to the labor market. And that's why we told the president that the next generation of Latinos in this country has to be well-educated," Menendez added. "Not only for the benefit of the Latino community, but also for the benefit of the whole North American community." But again the president listened, saying little and refusing to commit himself, Menendez said. Strike two.

"And on the economic front, the reality is that the president wants to cut by 45 percent the budget of the Small Business Administration, which for many of our Latino businesses is the agency that has given them the first opportunity to get a loan, start a business, and move ahead," Menendez said, noting that Bush "made no commitments to the restoration of any of those cuts." Strike three.

And if a strikeout isn't enough to make one doubt Bush's "compassion," the caucus gave Bush a letter, signed by more than 100 members of Congress, asking him to end the Navy training on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . Again, the president showed sympathy, but would not commit himself to stopping the bombing of the partly civilian-inhabited island.

Bush opened the meeting by reiterating his "respect for the Hispanic culture." These Latino lawmakers were there to discuss vital domestic issues, but Bush said most important was how to "make sure the world is more peaceful, more educated and more prosperous."

The remainder of the meeting was closed and, according to Menendez, not very encouraging

"Hopefully the president heard us today," Menendez told reporters after his now-rare visit to the White House. "But ... if I were to characterize his responses, as limited as they were, there were no commitments."

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