Lindsey Graham And Rick Santorum Enter Immigration Debate That Divides Republicans

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Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington February 11, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania) proposed wildly different approaches to immigration reform this week, but the two legislators have one common: they’re vying for the Republican presidential nomination. Thier proposals, revealed this week, mark the schism of a divided GOP primary and two different gambles on how to get their party into the White House. Graham wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Santorum wants to aggressively deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally and reduce legal immigration by 25 percent.

“When you look at the economic situation we’re confronting, there are Americans who are—as I mentioned in [my Breitbart op-ed earlier this week], of the 74 percent of the Americans who don’t have a college degree and are competing with the unskilled workers who are coming into this country who are obviously willing to work for less—you’ve got to address that issue,” Santorum told Breitbart.

"If I were president of the United States, I would veto any bill that did not have a pathway to citizenship," Graham, 59, told USA Today. "You would have a long, hard path to citizenship [...] but I want to create that path because I don't like the idea of millions of people living in America for the rest of their lives being the hired help. That's not who we are."

Other Republican presidential hopefuls arguably occupy a middle ground: “no” or “later” to amnesty  and “yes” to legal immigration. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee fall into that camp, adopting a “secure the borders first” mantra popular with Republican primary voters. By stopping short of the anti-immigrant populism advocated by Santorum, they avoid offending pro-business conservatives and the purse strings of the “invisible primary,” the money game overseen by the Koch Brothers and other major donors.

Hillary Clinton shaped the debate on Wednesday when she delivered highly anticipated public remarks from a meeting with immigration activists in Nevada.

“The American people support comprehensive immigration reform not just because it’s the right thing to do – and it is – but because it will strengthen families, strengthen our economy, and strengthen our country. That’s why we can’t wait any longer, we can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now, this is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side.”

Lindsey Graham, who is “98.6 percent sure” he’s running, essentially came out in support of “full and equal citizenship” the next day. Graham might be gambling his odds in the primary election, but it’s a gamble intent on a payoff in the general election. It’s also a raise to Jeb Bush, whose endorsement for “legal status” (as opposed to citizenship) was the best offer so far from a Republican candidate to pro-immigrant voters. In her remarks, Clinton called legal status “code for ‘second-class status,’” drawing rhetorical parallels to Jim Crow. With of of his overlap on Clinton’s position, Graham went to great lengths to set himself apart from Clinton, focusing on his opposition to President Obama’s deferred action programs, which she pledged to continue.   

“No American should want the executive branch to do something this monumental by themselves,” Graham told Bloomberg. “I think what she's doing is divisive. She is driving the wedge deeper.”

If Graham’s position is closer to that of Jeb Bush, Santorum’s is closer to that of Wisconsin Gov.  Scott Walker, the first competitive Republican candidate to advocate an increase in protectionist policies towards labor. Well, at least he was a competitive candidate, perhaps the most conservative person to seriously throw their hat in the race. Even GOP pollsters say that curbing legal immigration isn’t a winning bet in the competition for the White House.

They argue that an anti-immigrant candidate like Santorum won’t win against a pro-immigrant candidate like Clinton, who would at the very least could extend deferred action. At the same time, a more pro-immigrant candidate like Bush or Graham would have an easier time passing comprehensive reform. No matter who wins the Republican primary, or even the general election, undocumented immigrants and their communities are likely to score a victory in 2016.

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