May 29, 2013. Free Times. By Corey Hutchins. Columbia, SC. In Washington, D.C., Congress is tackling a sweeping immigration reform proposal, led in part by South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Lindsey Graham.
Graham is the only sponsor of the controversial bill who will be up for re-election next year, and that election will take place in a state where immigration reform isn’t necessarily the most popular policy proposal among the GOP electorate. Graham, however, has yet to draw a Republican primary opponent who would likely be able to match him in fundraising or broad GOP appeal in the Palmetto State.
Graham has called South Carolina the testing ground for the message of immigration reform.
“If you can sell it here, you can sell it anywhere,” he said of the message, according to The State. And he’s backed on the issue by the evangelical community in South Carolina, which is spending money on ads.
But there has been pushback.
“An anti-immigration group, Numbers USA, began airing a radio ad in February that demands, ‘Who elected Graham to demand amnesty and welfare for millions of illegal aliens?’ according to National Journal. The magazine also noted Graham’s approval rating has dropped from 72 percent to 58 percent, according to the Winthrop Poll, since the ads aired. In 2008, Graham’s primary opponent, Buddy Witherspoon, mercilessly attacked him for supporting immigration reform. Witherspoon ran a TV ad depicting people stepping over fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, speaking Spanish, and included a female voice saying, “Gracias, Lindsey Graham,” in a Mexican accent. (Graham won that election handily.)
Palmetto State groups pushing immigration reform are largely focused right now on the federal bill pending in Congress, according to Tammy Besherse, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the South Carolina Immigration Coalition. That’s because there is no legislative movement on the state level to do anything to reform immigration other than to strictly combat illegal immigration, such as with measures like the copycat version of Arizona’s controversial “papers, please” law that South Carolina legislators passed in 2011. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel cleared South Carolina’s law last November, but maintained injunctions on certain provisions of it, like making it illegal not to carry immigration papers and criminalizing the harboring or transporting of illegal immigrants. (The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Richmond, Va., on that law earlier this month; the state Attorney General’s Office is appealing certain provisions in the federal judge’s ruling on it.)
The comprehensive federal bill — known alternately as the “gang of eight” immigration bill (for the group of four Democratic and Republican senators drafting it), S. 744 (its bill number), and The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (its official name) — passed a key U.S. Senate committee last week and would offer a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
“While we don’t think this legislation, S. 744, is perfect — the fines and fees are too large for low-income families, and the wait time too long for the pathway to legalization for folks who have already been waiting — it is a landmark bill and the best opportunity in decades for fixing our broken immigration system,” says Victoria Middleton, director of the ACLU of South Carolin
According to the Immigration Policy Center, the Palmetto State would lose out on $1.8 billion in economic activity if unauthorized immigrants were removed. It also notes that 30.2 percent of immigrants in the state are eligible to vote and the state has 4,433 foreign students who contribute $105 million to the economy. Together, the purchasing power of the state’s Latino and Asian population is $6.8 billion.
“Nearly 75 percent of South Carolinians are behind comprehensive immigration reform and think the time has come for it,” Middleton says, citing a recent Winthrop Poll.
Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level died in a 2007 attempt. The latest bill should hit the full Senate floor in June. The U.S. House, dominated by conservatives, is hashing out its own plan.
Graham will likely continue to play an outsized role in the debate.
Says the South Carolina Immigration Coalition’s Besherse of Graham: “The fact that he’s willing to support it, coming from this state, says a lot about why he thinks reform is needed on all fronts, and that included reforms to the border, more border security.”