COLUMBIA, SC — A group of S.C. business leaders gathered in a State House office building Thursday afternoon to urge passage of a federal immigration bill, saying immigrant workers were “an asset on the balance sheet.”
That line was delivered by Rueben Montalvo, a Greenville businessman who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1986. Montalvo, who now owns 15 businesses, said other immigrants need the same opportunity. Immigration reform is long overdue, he said.
“This is the only place on earth where we protect the pursuit of happiness in our constitution,” Montalvo said. “Why on earth would we turn our backs on the people who want to give us their very best? It’s not only the right thing to do, but it makes good economic sense.”
The press conference was held hours after three national reform groups released the results of a 29-state, bipartisan poll that showed large support for an immigration bill working its way through Congress. The poll found 62 percent of S.C. voters strongly or somewhat supported the legislation.
The groups represented at the Thursday press conference in South Carolina rely on immigrant labor – the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Home Builders Association of South Carolina, the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, the S.C. Farm Bureau and the S.C. Peach Council.
The groups’ representatives said they need a flow of legal workers into the country to support their industries.
“The food and fiber produced in this country to feed every one of us couldn’t be done without these workers,” said Chalmers Carr, a member of the Palmetto Agribusiness Council and a Ridge Spring peach farmer.
Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said reform also needs to stretch beyond low-skilled labor. Too many foreign students are educated in the United States but not allowed to work here, he said. They go home to China, Russia and other countries to compete against American industry.
“None of that makes any sense to me or the people I represent,” McLeese said.
The bill, crafted by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who call themselves the Gang of Eight, would tighten border security, overhaul the country’s visa system and provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Earlier this week, the bill received the necessary approval to begin debate in the Senate, and it’s expected to be an issue that will dominate the coming weeks.
Much of the statewide support of the Gang of Eight’s bill also has served to assure U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that his work on it won’t damage his political career. In 2007, Graham’s political image was badly bruised at home after he supported a similar reform bill, and he is up for re-election in 2014.
The poll released Thursday asked voters if they would be likely to vote for an elected official who supports immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship; 56 percent of those polled in South Carolina, both Democrat and Republican, said yes.
“It’s not a vote to be feared,” Brock McCleary, president of Harper Polling, said in interpreting the poll results.
Charles Spies, co-founder of Republicans for Immigration Reform, said his group has found strong support after running television ads in the Upstate, he said.
He said any opposition voiced in South Carolina is coming from out-of-state groups.
“That’s not home-grown,” Spies said. “It’s not from leaders in South Carolina. I use the term AstroTurf because it’s people trying to put fake grass roots into the effort.”
Latest immigration Poll
A 29-state, bipartisan poll was conducted by Alliance for Citizenship, Partnership for a New American Economy, and Republican for Immigration Reform. Here are results from the S.C. poll, which surveyed 538 people:
Question: There is bipartisan immigration reform legislation being debated in Washingon. The bill would secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status. If a long list of requirements is met over more than a decade, it provides eligibility for a path to citizenship. Would you support or oppose this proposal?
Strongly support: 33%
Somewhat support: 29%
Somewhat oppose: 11%
Strongly oppose: 10%
Not sure: 18%
Question: Do you support or oppose an immigration reform plan that ensures undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. pay a penalty, learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay taxes and wait a minimum of 13 years before they can be eligible for citizenship?
Strongly support: 43%
Somewhat support: 27%
Somewhat oppose: 12%
Strongly oppose: 9%
Not sure: 9%
Question: Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for an elected official who votes for this legislation?
More likely: 56%
Less likely: 23%
Would not make a difference: 21%
Question: Do you agree or disagree with this statement. My senator should support this legislation because everyone agrees our immigration system is broken and this bill is tough, but fair. It would tighten border security, crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants and solve this problem once and for all.
Strongly agree: 53%
Somewhat agree: 21%
Somewhat disagree: 13%
Strongly disagree: 10%
Not sure: 3%
Question: How important is it that the U.S. fix its immigration system this year?
Very important: 67%
Somewhat important: 20%
Not too important: 6%
Not important at all: 3%
Not sure: 4%
Winthrop immigration poll
In April, a Winthrop University poll conducted exclusively for The State asked S.C. voters about their support for immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Three out of four residents polled supported it, including 77 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.