Illegal immigration an important issue; how to curb it unclear

COLUMBIA -- Almost seven in 10 South Carolinians say illegal immigration is an extremely or very important issue.

But there is no clear agreement about what should be done.

• More than four in 10 South Carolinians think illegal immigrants should be immediately deported.

• But more than a quarter of state residents think the immigrants should be fined and allowed to stay as temporary workers.

• Almost another quarter think illegal immigrants should be fined and allowed to stay in the country while they apply for citizenship.

Those are some of the key findings of a new Winthrop University/ETV poll. The poll's questions about illegal immigration were asked specifically for The State newspaper.

The split among those willing to let illegal immigrants stay in the country -- whether temporarily or permanently -- weakens their voices in the roaring immigration debate.

"The people who say, 'Let them stay,' split," said Winthrop's Scott Huffmon, the poll's director. "Because those two are split, 'immediately deport' always wins."

Illegal immigration is a hot issue in South Carolina, which recorded the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the United States between 2000 and 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Politicians on federal, state and even some local levels have tried to pass new immigration laws as they respond to voters' concerns about the issue.

The ETV/Winthrop poll also asked S.C. residents about plans for dealing with illegal immigration and whether they support an English-only policy for state government documents.

The poll found:

• 61 percent think sealing the borders and dealing with the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants in the country should be given the same priority.

• 59.3 percent said they would support passage of a law that requires all S.C. services and publications to be in English only.

Other surveys also have found South Carolinians concerned about illegal immigration.

More than half the voters in the state's January Republican presidential primary said illegal immigrants should be deported to their home countries, according to exit polling.

An August survey by Winthrop found that a majority of black South Carolinians said illegal immigration hurts them economically.

Winthrop's Huffmon said the question on how to deal with illegal immigrants who already are here -- part of the latest ETV/Winthrop poll, conducted earlier this month -- elicited the most interesting response.

"It actually shows more people are willing to let illegal immigrants stay once we know who they are," he said.

'This is America'

Those results may surprise some, considering the vocal criticism of a federal immigration bill that was proposed last year by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and supported by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The bill included plans to allow illegal immigrants to report themselves, pay fines and reapply for legal status.

Critics said the proposal would give amnesty to people who broke the law and nicknamed Graham as "Grah-amnesty" because of his support for the bill.

Jeanne Sanders, 55, of Greenville is one of the poll respondents who said illegal immigrants should be immediately deported. She said she will not vote for Graham in November.

Sanders, who owns a hearing aid business, said illegal immigrants are taking over the country.

"We can't continue to allow such an influx of people who don't follow the rules of this country," she said. "They just don't play by the same rules, and I don't think that's fair. I resent riding down the road in my city and seeing all the Spanish signs. This is America."

Patrick Hayes, 39, a Richland County social services worker, also said he would prefer to deport illegal immigrants. But Hayes said it would be impossible to round up millions of illegal immigrants now in the United States. As a result, he supports a plan allowing illegal immigrants to come forward, pay fines and start over in the immigration process.

"We don't know who they are or where they are," Hayes said.