U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has typically been on the Democratic side of the immigration debate, agitating for greater opportunities for undocumented immigrants to become United States citizens.
Now, by spearheading legislation that could make it harder for Central American migrants to claim asylum — and possibly detain minors for a longer length of time — the South Carolina Republican is aligning himself with conservative, immigration hardliners.
It’s a position that could further cement Graham’s popularity with his Republican base as he seeks reelection in 2020.
Pushing for restrictions on immigration plays well with the GOP, even in a non-border state like South Carolina, said Winthrop University’s Scott Huffmon, a political science professor who runs a statewide public opinion poll.
“Just because it’s not necessarily an issue we face personally in South Carolina, the nationalization of politics today means it’s absolutely something that especially conservative South Carolinians are worried about.”
But it’s also a stance that could complicate Graham’s reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker on one of the thorniest issues in politics.
“Mr. Graham has been historically a good partner on immigration efforts and led the bipartisan grouping of the willing to try to get principled solutions,” said Carlos Guevara, a senior policy adviser with UnidosUS. “We have had concerns with his recent postures in the past couple months on this issue, and seen them as confusing, and even disappointing.”
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham insisted Wednesday he hasn’t undergone an ideological reversal. He said he still “100 percent” supports advancing the “DREAM Act” that would provide a pathway to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children by their parents, who entered the country illegally.
But Graham, who has long called for passing comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation that pairs some iteration of the DREAM Act with strong border enforcement measures, now says Congress shouldn’t pass any citizenship measure until after lawmakers take action to stem the tide of migrants at the southern border.
“I’ll do the DREAM Act, but it’s gotta be tied to something else,” Graham told McClatchy on Wednesday. “We’re not gonna legalize people unless you address part of the problem that led to a broken immigration system. If you just legalize the DREAM Act without addressing border security, then what good have you done?”
“The price for that is to close the loophole,” said Graham, referring to the current laws that allow undocumented immigrants to make asylum claims to remain in the country indefinitely. Those claims are often sought by people who say they are fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries.
Graham acknowledged he’s assuming a “new position” in the immigration debate, but attributed it to a sense of urgency to address what he and other Republicans consider a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As of March 31, 361,087 migrants have been apprehended at the border since the start of fiscal year 2019 — a 108% increase over the same time period in fiscal year 2018, according to U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla L. Provost. The number of migrants coming to the border is expected to climb steeply in the summer months.
Still, Graham’s rhetoric on immigration has shifted even since earlier this year, when he was trying to end a record-setting government shutdown by exchanging some Dreamer protections for border wall funding.
He’s also taking a different stance than he did in 2014, the last time he was up for reelection. That year, he was fending off multiple primary challengers who derided him as “Lindsey Grahamnesty” for his work on a bipartisan immigration deal that passed the U.S. Senate but died in the U.S. House in 2013.
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, recalled with admiration how Graham responded to his critics.
“He was unapologetic,” Sharry said Wednesday. “He was clear about why he was doing it: It was about solving problems, about making sure we secure the border and making sure the Republicans become viable with Latino voters ... It was really a master class in political courage and independence under extreme conditions.”
Now, Sharry said, in a bid to appear loyal, Graham was parroting President Donald Trump’s calls to “build the wall” to keep out undocumented immigrants.
“Trump’s strategy is not even failing, it’s cruel. And the fact that Lindsey Graham, arguably one of the most thoughtful leaders on immigration reform, is fronting for that policy, I think is outrageous,” Sharry said.
In another twist, the Federation for American Immigration Reform — which is typically at odds with Graham on immigration matters — is now advocating for the same thing Graham wants: “To secure our borders and end abuse of our humanitarian policies ... before any other matters are addressed,” according to RJ Hauman, the group’s government affairs director.
Graham’s proposal, which he plans to move through the Judiciary Committee, would overhaul the country’s current process for granting asylum, which he said is “being abused” by immigrants who arrive at the border expecting automatic protection from deportation. It would extend the current, maximum 20-day window a minor can be held at an immigration detention facility and make it easier for a minor to be sent back to his or her home country.
He is working on his bill as Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is urging Republican senators to take up a separate measure that, in addition to modernizing border security mechanisms, would keep legal immigration at current levels but give preference to immigrants with desirable job skills over those with family members already in the country.
“I talked to Jared last night,” Graham told McClatchy. “I appreciate him trying to put together a border security-merit based plan that Republicans can rally around and just see if we can work with Democrats to get something done.”
Democrats don’t support Graham’s plan or Kushner’s.