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.”

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