WASHINGTON — Six years ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham crafted a rare type of bill that blocked the U.S. government from punishing an South Carolina high school girl for a crime her mother had committed long ago by smuggling her across the Mexico border.
Seven months ago, Griselda Lopez Negrete graduated from the University of South Carolina in Aiken with an honors degree in business administration — and as a permanent legal resident of the United States on a path toward citizenship.
Graham, though, has trod a different path.
Three years after promoting a landmark immigration bill, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is now joining hardliners in opposing a measure that would grant the same protections to children of illegal immigrants that he provided Negrete in 2004.
Graham sees no contradiction between his past support for immigration overhauls — branded as "amnesty" by his fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint — and his current stance against a measure to create a conditional route to citizenship for as many as 500,000 children of illegal immigrants.
The House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — late Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to vote on it next week.
"I'm not saying the DREAM Act is bad," Graham told McClatchy Thursday. "I'm saying that the DREAM Act done by itself is a formula for disaster because you're inviting people to come here illegally."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., however, said the bill applies only to those already in the country at the time of passage.
"I am proud that in this toxic political climate, the House did the right thing and passed good common-sense bipartisan legislation that gives our Latino brothers and sisters a chance to contribute to our country's future," Clyburn said.
Graham, who voted against a similar Senate measure in 2007, said it must be part of broader legislation that secures the U.S.-Mexico border, overhauls federal guest worker programs and enacts other changes.
The House-passed bill makes immigrants younger than 30 eligible for legal residency if they entered the U.S. before age 16, lived here for at least five years without committing a serious crime and graduated from high school.
The undocumented youths would also have to attend college or serve in the military for two years or more under the House measure.
Graham, however, accused Democrats who pushed the legislation of playing "a silly, stupid game" aimed at alienating Hispanics from Republicans.
Predicting that the DREAM Act will "go down in flames" in the Senate with at least eight Democrats opposing it, Graham said the party's congressional leaders are pushing it to fulfill a promise by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the Nevada Democrat's tough re-election campaign.
Hispanics, who make up a significant portion of Nevada voters, helped Reid defeat Republican challenger Sharron Angle in the Nov. 2 election.
Graham said he aided Negrete because she had a compelling personal story, including the tragedy of her mother's death when she was 8. She was later adopted by her uncle.
"I wanted to help her because she was in a very unique situation," Graham said. "I can't help everybody, but I could help her."
Graham's aides noted that after he introduced his "private bill" on her behalf, which froze deportation procedures, Negrete still had to apply for legal residency from her hometown in Mexico.
Graham said the 2007 bipartisan legislation he backed with President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., provided legal status for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, but he said the bill also stiffened enforcement and tightened border controls.
"I believe in comprehensive reform," Graham said. "When you look at our last bill, it had (provisions of) the DREAM Act in it, but we did border security, we did a temporary worker program, we did it all."