Immigration is weighing on the minds of South Carolinians as the 2016 presidential primaries approach in February.
Consider: Donald Trump, who has adopted a hard line on dealing with the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, leads GOP presidential polls in South Carolina, the state that holds the South’s first presidential primary.
“You’re not going to be in a town hall for Trump and say you favor a path to citizenship,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “You’ll be pelted with red trucker hats.”
But the majority of South Carolinians, including Republicans, don’t share the New York business mogul’s deport-them-now views.
Most in the Palmetto State favor giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, under specific requirements, rather than deporting them or allowing them to stay only for a limited time, according to a Winthrop Poll question asked exclusively for The State newspaper.
“The answer is not build a wall or send them home,” said S.C. political consultant Chip Felkel, whose firm has worked with state business leaders to promote immigration reform. “That’s easy, cop-out easy.”
Still, South Carolinians don’t favor a path to citizenship as much as the rest of Americans do.
A nationwide Gallup Poll this summer found 65 percent favored allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens versus 58 percent in South Carolina, according to the Winthrop Poll.
“The loudest voice is still Donald Trump,” Felkel said. “It’s a red-meat issue.”
A big concern
Asked to name the nation’s biggest problem in the Winthrop poll, immigration ranked fourth among all South Carolinians – trailing the economy, government and moral values but ahead of jobs.
Immigration is an even more vital concern among Republicans, where debate over the issue sometimes has dominated the large presidential field.
For S.C. Republicans, only the economy surpassed immigration as the most important problem facing the United States, the poll found.
Winthrop pollsters did not give respondents a list of issues to select from, Huffmon said.
Instead, those surveyed could answer with any problem at the top of their mind. “They were organic answers,” he said.
Yet immigration is not a top-of-mind issue for many Democrats. The issue did not crack the top five concerns for Democrats surveyed, who said the economy and education were their top worries.
Recent Columbia-area stops by top 2016 Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders included almost no discussion of immigration.
Republicans consistently have made immigration part of their stump speeches around the state. Several GOP hopefuls have touted their plans to stop more undocumented immigrants from entering the country by building more walls on the Mexican border.
For example, Ben Carson, the retired Maryland neurosurgeon who is second to Trump in GOP presidential polls, last month in Greenville suggested “using the combination of the right kind of barrier and putting people there to monitor and having a judicial system that prosecuted first-time offenders.”
Still, Carson, like some other GOP candidates, doesn’t see mass deportation as a solution. “I don’t think that it is possible to round them all up.”
‘An applause line’
The latest Winthrop Poll results line up with the pathway-to-citizenship position of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is running for the GOP nomination.
A similar Winthrop Poll in April 2013 found a majority of South Carolinians backed comprehensive immigration reforms that included a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
But in primary season, Republican candidates are trying to appeal to hard-core party supporters, who hold stronger opinions on the issue. Primaries attract more of those hard-line Republicans. Those voters also are the ones showing up at town hall meetings and restaurants to grill candidates.
“People asking the politicians to do something are not people favoring a path to citizenship,” Huffmon said.
That has led to some shifts in views among the Republican presidential hopefuls. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, have backed off some of their previous pro-immigration reform stances.
Last month in Greenville, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, said he wants a merit-based immigration policy. He vowed to end policies where “America has become a hotel that checks in but never checks out.”
Other candidates, including Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have touted their opposition to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
“It’s an applause line,” Huffmon said.
However, immigration reform opponents in the state say their position is shared by more than just conservative GOP activists.
State Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg Republican who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate last year, thinks South Carolinians surveyed in the poll backed citizenship because they expect the president and Congress to act and fix the problem.
Based on his Senate campaigning last year, Bright said most South Carolinians think immigrants in the country illegally should be sent home because they broke the rules.
The rub, he said, is that people don’t want to call for deportation themselves because they know or have met undocumented immigrants.
“They personalize this,” said Bright, who ran against Graham last year, in part, because of the senator’s call for citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “They will want someone, a leader, who will make that hard decision.”
Wait until next year
A tough call for GOP candidates might be weighing the right answer to the immigration issue that also aids businesses, who cannot afford to see millions of workers disappear.
S.C. business leaders favor an immigration-reform package that includes protecting the border while improving the guest worker programs that provide employees for the state’s tourism and agriculture industries.
But, like some of the candidates running for the White House, the business community’s position on a path to citizenship is not always clear.
Business leaders say they see the Winthrop Poll results as a sign that South Carolinians want to find a solution to the immigration issue.
“There’s also a lot of room to educate on this,” said Carl Blackstone, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, no one has the right plan. We’ve been debating this for what – 10 years? – and still don’t have a plan (from Congress). It doesn’t look like we’re going to have one any time soon.”
Some presidential hopefuls agree structured reform is needed, including to the guest worker program.
“We have to fix the legal immigration system,” Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive who stands third nationally and fourth in S.C. GOP polls, said in Aiken on Friday. “Every single one of these festering problems can be solved.”
Winthrop’s Huffmon expects the rhetoric on immigration to soften after the GOP presidential nominee is chosen.
“I expect the attitude reflected here (in the poll) will be adopted by next November.”
The Associated Press contributed
Weighing in on immigration
The Winthrop Poll asked South Carolinians their opinion last month about how the U.S. government should handle undocumented immigrants. Pollsters asked: “Should the government: deport all illegal immigrants back to the their home county; allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States in order to work, but only for a limited amount of time; or allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens, but only if they meet certain requirements over a period of time?”
Here’s how South Carolinians responded:
Allow to become citizens:
Republicans and GOP leaning: 42%
Deport all illegal immigrants:
Republicans and GOP leaning: 35%
Remain to work for limited time:
Republicans and GOP leaning: 21%