COLUMBIA — A coalition of business, political and religious groups gathered Wednesday morning in Columbia to call on Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws, including providing a path to citizenship.
Their public push for change came as two Republican political organizations released a television advertisement supporting the 2014 re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s and Graham’s role in pushing for immigration reform.
S.C. evangelical groups, meanwhile, announced their own radio ad campaign for reform that will be aired on 15 Christian stations across the state to counter a deluge of attack ads targeting Graham, who has been one of the most vocal Republican proponents for granting citizenship to the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
“Many of our neighbors came here seeking opportunity, but our dysfunctional immigration system breaks up families across the U.S.,” the Rev. Jim Goodroe, director of missions at the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, says in the radio ad. “Christ calls evangelicals to compassion and justice. ... Our South Carolina elected officials need your prayers and to hear your voice. Speak out.”
The ads come as South Carolina is emerging as a key battleground in the illegal immigration fight.
While members of the Palmetto State Coalition for Immigration Reform said their effort was separate from the Graham re-election campaign, their morning press conference felt like a Graham campaign event. The coalition showed the advertisement and at least one speaker specifically expressed support for Graham. And press releases from the Republicans for Immigration Reform and the Partnership for a New American Economy were distributed to reporters.
The political consultants who organized the Palmetto State Coalition’s event also work for the New American Economy group, said Shell Suber, vice president of public affairs for the Felkel Group.
The Palmetto State Coalition has sent a letter to Graham and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., urging them to make a serious attempt to reform the nation’s immigration policy. The letter cited the state’s agriculture, manufacturing and tourism industries that rely on foreign workers. The letter was signed by 17 organizations and individuals, including the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides, the Columbia Urban League as well as businessmen and a member of the S.C. Republican Party’s national committee member.
Ike McLeese, president of the Columbia chamber, said the coalition wants to take advantage of a mood in Washington that appears ready to make changes to immigration policy. Political leaders need to make tough decisions on how to deal with the more than 11 million illegal immigrants that are estimated to be in the country.
“To continue to hide that or pretend it doesn’t exist is sure folly,” McLeese said.
McLeese also said reform is vital to the state’s economy, not only because immigrants are the backbone of the agriculture and tourism industries. Every year, hundreds of foreign students earn degrees from the state’s major universities and then are forced to return home where they compete against the U.S. economy, McLeese said.
“Our immigration laws make it very difficult to remain in the United States and do business here,” he said.
Larry McKenzie of the S.C. Farm Bureau said farmers have been asking for immigration reform for years. They want an expanded visa program that allows more workers into the country and a program where compliance is not as expensive as it is now, he said.
Wednesday’s call for change also comes as the national Republican Party shifts its immigration policy. For years, the party appealed to a base of supporters by resisting any reform that might allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country. Graham felt the brunt of that policy during his last re-election campaign, in 2008, when he was heavily criticized for his bipartisan support for reform.
At the time, South Carolina was considering its own immigration reform with the intent to drive illegal immigrants out of the state. At Statehouse rallies, people passed out anti-Graham material, including bumper stickers calling the senator a traitor. One read, “Deport Lindsey Graham south of the border.”
As a result of that political pressure and an election on the line, Graham backed off. Now that Republicans are embracing reform, Graham is once again participating in the conversation. And he’s receiving support from the political action committees and other groups who want change.
McKenzie said the Farm Bureau and other groups hope to take advantage of changing political winds on immigration reform.
“You’re seeing some of those extreme positions being eroded,” he said. “Now is the time to get something done.”
Tammy Besherse, an attorney with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, has been part of the immigration reform effort for eight years and is a member of the South Carolina Immigration Coalition. She had not heard of the Palmetto Coalition until Wednesday.
But she welcomes the new voices in the fight for change.
“A lot of groups recognize we need some type of comprehensive immigration reform,” Besherse said. “It’s unrealistic to deport that many people. Physically, it’s not possible. Financially, it’s not possible.”
Franco Ordonez of McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington Bureau contributed.