James Werrell

Graham showed courage in immigration battle

Both of South Carolina's Republican senators played important roles in the recent legislative battle over immigration reform. Lindsey Graham was one of the bill's key architects; Jim DeMint was a key player in demolishing it.

Sadly, it is Graham, who put his credibility on the line in a principled effort to forge a compromise on immigration, who is being politically crucified. DeMint, who offered nothing constructive to the debate, is basking in the applause of the "no amnesty" crowd.

The compromise, patched together by such disparate partners as Graham, Ted Kennedy, President Bush, John Cornyn, Harry Reid and John McCain, was a fragile one. Its only real strength derived from its having provisions that both sides of the debate would hate. And its only chance of passing was to prevent either side from gutting the bill or loading it up with amendments opponents would be unable to stomach.

For example, the bill would have forced Democrats to hold their noses and vote for, among other things, a guest-worker program and a limit on bringing family members to join immigrants already in the United States. The biggest pill for Republicans to swallow was the proposed path to citizenship for the more than 12 million undocumented aliens already in this country.

This precarious balancing act gave DeMint and his cohorts a way to derail the bill. Initially, DeMint had voted against an amendment that would have watered down the guest-worker program, which he supported. Two weeks later, however, as the bill hung in the balance, DeMint committed an act of sabotage that was the equivalent of a lethal injection.

He and three other conservative Republicans voted in favor of the same Democratic amendment to phase out the guest-worker program that he had earlier opposed, giving it the votes it needed to pass. Once the guest-worker program was jeopardized, the teetering bipartisan coalition began to unravel and the bill was pulled.

DeMint made no bones about his intentions: "If it hurts the bill, I'm for it," he said later.

Supporters, including the president, are working hard to revive immigration reform. But as long as opponents are willing to do whatever it takes to block reforms, progress will be difficult, if not impossible.

DeMint no doubt would assert that his stand was as principled as Graham's. But he can't claim that it was as courageous. DeMint risked nothing by catering to his natural constituency and bellowing about amnesty.

Graham, by contrast, crossed the aisle to work with Democrats to piece together an immigration bill he knew would be anathema to many, if not most, South Carolinians. And he did it because he believes the nation must rationally confront one of its most pressing domestic problems.

He's right. He may pay a steep political price for it (the blowhards on talk radio have nicknamed him Lindsey "Grahamnesty") but he is right.

The nation has legitimate reasons, including the threat of terrorism, to make its borders more secure, and this bill would have bolstered border security in significant ways. But the nation also must deal realistically with the millions of immigrants already here, many of whom have deep roots and no desire to leave.

This bill would have provided those immigrants with a way to become legal citizens, and the solution was far from the "get out of jail free" card that opponents claimed it was. Under the compromise, undocumented aliens would have had to pay $5,000 in fines and learn English before they could embark on the path to citizenship. A "touchback" provision also would have required heads of households to leave jobs and family, and return to their country of origin for an unspecified time before coming back to the United States to pursue citizenship.

But no matter how many draconian requirements we might heap on immigrants who want to become citizens, opponents will continue to label it "amnesty" -- and they will have no workable alternatives to offer, other than the fairy-tale notion that increased enforcement will compel 12 million people to go back where they came from.

That's not going to happen, and it would be an economic disaster of doomsday proportions if it did. Furthermore, as long as we delay immigration reform, more illegal immigrants will continue to enter the country -- a de facto form of amnesty -- and the issue will remain unresolved.

We need more leaders like Graham who are willing to risk their political standing for the good of the nation. We need fewer like DeMint who are willing to stoke nativist fears for political motives, thereby ensuring that nothing changes.