South Carolina becomes Republican's immigration reform 'test market'


The State (Columbia, S.C.)

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called South Carolina ground zero in the fight for immigration reform as evangelicals join Republicans in pushing for change.

The Republican party and evangelical movement are using conservative, religious South Carolina as a test market for their message that immigration is as much a moral issue as an economic one. An Upstate minister and a Columbia businessman stood with Graham as he laid out his four-point reform plan in a Columbia news conference that featured as many national reporters as local ones.

“If you can sell it here, you can sell it anywhere,” Graham said of the message.

Graham is one of the GOP’s leading voices on immigration reform, a position that five years ago damaged his political image at home and caused him to back off the issue. This time, the evangelicals have brought Graham key support that he had lacked.

Until now, most religious groups have stayed out of the immigration debate. In a 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 1 in 4 people surveyed said their clergy talked about immigration and less than 7 percent of the respondents said religion helped form their views on immigration.

Now, the evangelical community is putting its money and its political muscle into the debate. Ads are running on Christian radio stations, a website promotes Bible verses about immigration, and the Evangelical Immigration Table will send text messages to update subscribers. The evangelical campaign for immigration launched earlier this month with a news conference and conference calls with national media.

“As Christians we’re called to be more than just Republicans or conservatives,” said Hal Stevenson, owner of Grace outdoor advertising in Columbia and a board member of the conservative Palmetto Family Council. “We’re called to be thinkers and representatives of Christ in the marketplace. “

Graham is a member of a bipartisan committee that is hashing out an immigration bill to take to Congress. Progress on the bill has stalled as Republicans and Democrats argue over changes to the guest worker program.

The senator said his ideal plan would secure the country’s borders, control who gets jobs in America, provide access for non-citizen workers as needed and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

That path to citizenship would require illegal immigrants to go to the back of the line to apply for citizenship, require English proficiency exams, ensure immigrants are paying taxes and impose a fine for those who are illegal immigrants, Graham said.

Graham’s lead on immigration reform again has earned critics. In the Upstate, opposition groups have been running television ads saying Graham is promoting amnesty for illegal immigrants.

When asked about the amnesty accusation, Graham said the country provided amnesty once but it didn’t fix the immigration system. This time, he intends to fix the system while finding a practical, fair way to deal with illegal immigrants.

“When people come up to me and say, ‘We need to send them all back,’ I say ‘Thank you very much, but we’re not going to be able to do that,’” he said.

Graham insisted he will not back down on the immigration issue this time around, especially since he has the support of the evangelical community. Religious voices from a conservative hotbed like South Carolina will help the cause, he said.

“If you want to run ads, spend all the money you want to spend,” he said. “I’m not backing off.”

Another reason behind Graham’s renewed participation in the immigration debate is a shift in the Republican Party’s attempt to win back Hispanic voters. Graham did not shy away from what he described as a “sea change in politics on the Republican side.” It’s a change that comes after the 2012 presidential election, in which Hispanics overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama.

“The problem with the Hispanic community is the way we’ve conducted ourselves over this debate,” Graham said. “If we can get this issue behind us, we can be back in the ballgame.”

S.C. Democrats and others who have called for federal immigration reform welcome the GOP’s change of heart and the support of evangelicals.

S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, was a leading voice against South Carolina’s immigration legislation in 2008 and 2011 as he repeatedly called for federal reform.

“It does need to change on the national level, and I’m glad Senator Graham is leading the charge,” Hutto said.

It’s especially important in South Carolina, where immigrant labor is essential to the agriculture and tourism industries. He doesn’t think people who want change “really care if there’s not a real altruistic reason (Republicans) are coming around to what I consider the right side of the issue.”

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

FILE - In this March 8, 2010 file photo, US Ambassador to Kuwait Deborah Jones is seen in Kuwait City. On Saturday, July 26, 2014,The United States shut down its embassy in Libya and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said.  On Sunday, July 20, 2014, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones tweeted about “heavy shelling and other exchanges” of fire in the vicinity of the embassy.

    US evacuates embassy in Libya amid clashes

    The United States shuttered its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort as fighting intensified between rival militias. Secretary of State John Kerry said "free-wheeling militia violence" prompted the move.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about the economy at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in Los Angeles, Thursday, July 24, 2014, on the final day of his three-day West Coast trip. Striking a populist stand ahead of the midterm elections, Obama is demanding "economic patriotism" from American corporations that seek overseas mergers to avoid U.S. taxes. Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing to severely limit such deals, a move resisted by Republicans who argue the entire corporate tax code needs an overhaul.

    Obama: Offshore 'tax inversions' are unpatriotic

    President Barack Obama says a loophole that lets companies dodge U.S. taxes by moving their headquarters overseas is unpatriotic.

FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2014, AT 12:01 A.M. EDT - This combination of campaign provided photos and staff photos shows Congressional candidates in the 2014 Michigan primary election. Top row, from left, are Tom Whitmire, Fred Upton, Douglas Radcliffe North, and Tim Walberg. Bottom row, from left, are Mike Bishop, Tom McMillin, Ken Darga and Susan Grettenberger.

    Michigan primary is start of US House shakeup

    Michigan primary voters will begin determining what could be one of the bigger shake-ups in the state's congressional delegation in years, a revamp that could become even larger if business-supported Republican challengers can topple tea party-backed congressmen.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category