South Carolina is front and center at immigration debates

Referred to as “Ground Zero” by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican champion of reform and member of the bipartisan “Gang of 8” negotiating a draft bill, South Carolina is emerging as a major battleground in the immigration debate. Graham is one of the GOP’s leading voices on immigration reform, a position that five years ago damaged his political image in the religious and conservative state of South Carolina, and caused him to back off of the issue. This time, the evangelicals have brought Graham key support that he didn’t have before.

Republican party members are using South Carolina as a “test market” for their message, stating that immigration is as much a moral issue as it is an economic one. Until now, most religious groups have stayed out of the immigration debate.

The senator said his immigration plan would secure the country’s borders, control who gets jobs in America, provide access for noncitizen workers as needed and carve a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants in the country. Graham noted that the path to citizenship would require illegal immigrants to go to the back of the line to apply for citizenship, take English proficiency exams, ensure that immigrants are paying taxes and impose a fine for those who are illegally in the United States.

However, not all are welcoming this approach, saying that Graham’s plan will help immigrants steal jobs. That’s why opponents of immigration reform have targeted South Carolina with an ad campaign that plays into the idea that immigrants will steal jobs in the future if Graham’s ideas pass through the Senate.

“The consequences of breaking immigration law is, you have to go home,” Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA told Fox News. “Everything about this says ‘you don’t have to go home.’  You get to stay here and you get to keep the jobs that you came here to steal.”

Graham insists that this time, his stance on immigration reform won’t let up, especially since he has the support of the evangelical community. He commented that the input of the religious community in South Carolina will help the cause.

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

Republicans like Graham are also trying to welcome more immigrant Hispanics into their ranks. According to Fox News, the Republican party earned 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election. This is down from 44 percent during George W. Bush’s campaign. Graham said that he planned to recover this problem and bring more Hispanics to the Republican side.

“We’ve gone from 44 percent to 27 percent of the Hispanic vote,” Graham said, according to Fox News. “Not because conservatism is bad, it’s because the rhetoric around immigration has tainted the Republican brand with the Hispanic community for no good reason. We’re going to fix this problem. The problem with the Hispanic community is the way we’ve conducted ourselves over this debate. If we can get this issue behind us, we can be back in the ballgame.”

The New York Times reported that Graham is up for reelection in 2014, and he’s not stopping his immigration fight anytime soon.

“There’s 67 million reasons not to run against Lindsey Graham,” Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, told The New York Times. “You’re going to have a heck of a run.”

Graham furthered this point when he told reporters that he would fight for immigration reform. He’s focused on securing the borders and the idea that immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking the law, and only then moves on to citizenship.

“When people come up to me and say, ‘You’ve got to send them all back,’ I say, ‘Thank you very much, that ain’t gonna work.'”