U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is wading into the immigration thicket again, less than six years after a titanic battle over the same issue left the Seneca Republican badly bruised and on the losing side.
Like then, Graham is a year away from a re-election campaign. But Graham says the prospect of a serious Senate primary challenge – from state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, or a well-known Republican – doesn’t scare him, and he thinks the chances of achieving real immigration reforms are better this time.
“I am confident – very confident – that if I help solve this problem in a way that we won’t have 20 million illegal immigrants 20 years from now, not only will I get re-elected, I can look back and say I was involved in something that was important,” Graham said Tuesday.
Graham is among a bipartisan group of senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, crafting a new plan that would beef-up border security, visa tracking and workplace verification in exchange for providing a path toward citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented workers.
President Barack Obama, whose pledge to repair the immigration system helped draw Hispanic voters in November, unveiled his own plan Tuesday in Nevada.
In the new Senate effort, Graham and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona are the only Republican holdovers from the 2007 initiative that went down in flames after then-Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican, branded it amnesty and helped galvanize nationwide opposition among conservative activists.
Graham thinks the political landscape has changed since then, starting with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s White House defeat, powered in part by overwhelming support for Obama among Latino voters, and Republican desire to stem the bleeding among the country’s fastest-growing demographic group.
“You’ll never convince me that the reason our (election) numbers with Hispanics have tanked since 2004 is due to anything other than our rhetoric around trying to fix immigration,” Graham said. “I care about the party. I care about the country, and I have confidence in the people of South Carolina who expect a guy like me to show up not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”
Graham acknowledged that the leading role in the new push of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida and a Tea Party favorite who was endorsed by DeMint, helps provide political cover for him and other Republicans.
“Marco Rubio coming into the mix has been good,” Graham said. “He’s a solid conservative, he’s a rising star, he’s Hispanic, and he can tell you better than I can the damage being done to the party on this issue.”
Left unsaid is the added importance that one of the most powerful foes of immigration reform is no longer the junior senator from Graham’s own state. DeMint quit the Senate in January to head the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
If you want to measure the extent of political climate change on immigration, you need look no further than Rock Hill, home to Glenn McCall, one of three S.C. members of the Republican National Committee.
McCall was one of five state party leaders appointed by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus last month to head a major retooling of the Republican Party. McCall said Tuesday that an early task in that mission was participating in a recent conference call with 400 Hispanics from around the country.
“It’s clear that while the immigration issue is not at the top of the list for Latino-Americans, the rhetoric and tone and vitriol that my party has used on this topic has not helped us,” McCall said.
McCall, one of three African-American Republican National Committee members, said he regrets having opposed the 2007 immigration reform drive that Graham, McCain and then-President George W. Bush launched along with the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
“In retrospect, that was the wrong thing for me to do and the right thing to do for Sen. Graham,” McCall said. “I opposed it out of ignorance, for one. ... I’ve gotten past the emotions to look at what’s best for the country and what’s best for this (Hispanic) community.”
Another conservative who has had a change of heart is Randy Page of Lexington, a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention and a member of its platform committee.
“I freely admit that I was part of the other side (from Graham) that was very shrill against any type of reform,” Page said Tuesday. “I’ve changed from that in the past few months.
“The election results had a good bit to do with it, along with listening to Sens. Rubio and Graham talk about the need for reform and how we need to come together. It’s just been a shouting match in the past. We’ve never tried to sit down and be kind to each other and try to figure out a solution.”
Graham said he wants to avoid repeating the mistakes made under the 1986 amnesty granted by then-President Ronald Reagan, in which 3 million undocumented workers received legal status without taking enforcement steps to prevent a wave of new immigrants from entering the country.
“I want border security. I want a temporary-worker program, and I want employer verification so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Graham said. “Everybody who stays should learn the English language and get in the back of the line if they want to become a citizen.”
Graham, McCall and Page all agreed that Romney damaged his White House campaign when he identified “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration. “I don’t think there’s any question that it hurt,” Page said. “It just sent the wrong message.”
Graham said there can be no solution without finding a way forward for the 11 million undocumented workers already in the country.
“They’re not going to self-deport,” he said. “They’re not going to get on a bus and go back. Some of these people have been here for decades with children and grandchildren who are American citizens.”
Even with the political winds now at his back, Graham doesn’t expect to get a free ride.
Already some Senate Republicans are lining up to oppose the bipartisan reform initiative, including U.S. Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Neither does Graham anticipate a love-fest back home. He’s prepared to face some of the hostility he endured in 2007 from some S.C. GOP activists.
“Anytime you deal with a complicated, emotional issue, you’re going to draw fire,” Graham said. “I expect to get criticized by some. If you want to yell at me, that’s fine, but you’d better tell me what you would do. And if you tell me that you’d put all 11 million people on a bus, I’m not going to listen to you anymore.”
Adding he wants to look at the details of Obama’s new proposal, Graham said he is hopeful that 2013 will be the year when comprehensive immigration reform is finally accomplished.
“This is the right time to do it,” he said. “This is the best time I’ve seen to get it done.”