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SC Senate policy stakes: Graham backs Trump immigration approach, Harrison urges 'decency'

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Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison (left) and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.  File

COLUMBIA — After a lull at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border have begun rising again in recent months, resurrecting an issue that has bedeviled congressional negotiators for many years.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has often been at the center of those negotiations, offering a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in exchange for stronger border security measures — a compromise that drew harsh criticism from some conservatives.

Since becoming a close ally of President Donald Trump, Graham has toughened his rhetoric on illegal immigration at times, prompting Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison to accuse the Republican incumbent of "playing towards our greatest fears."

This is the fifth installment of an eight-part series in The Post and Courier leading up to the election that will lay out the policy views of Graham and Harrison on issues that matter most to South Carolina voters.

The responses to this candidate questionnaire have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Do you support a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.?

Graham: I have been involved in every bipartisan effort to fix a broken immigration system since 2006. I support a pathway to citizenship for non-felon illegal immigrants while we simultaneously secure our border, address the root causes of illegal immigration and modernize our legal immigration system. A pathway to citizenship must be earned, not given. An individual should have to pass an English proficiency exam, undergo background and national security screenings, pay a fine for the law that was broken, file tax returns, and get in the back of the line from the country of origin so you do not gain an unfair advantage over those who have done it legally. I expect a secure border, E-verify to stop hiring of illegal immigrants, and modernized legal immigration in return for a pathway to citizenship.

Harrison: Combined with effective border security, Congress should finally work in a bipartisan way to create a path towards citizenship — particularly for those undocumented immigrants without a criminal history who have put down roots in the United States. I support DACA, which prevents the deportation of undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Congress should cement this program into law by supporting the DREAM Act, which has overwhelming bipartisan support. These are not radical ideas. Lindsey Graham in 2013 was a key player in a reform bill that would have provided a path to citizenship. But our senior senator has changed. Instead of appealing to our hopes, he now sees benefit in playing towards our greatest fears.

Do you believe the federal government should decriminalize illegal immigration?

Graham: Decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States is a bad idea. Incentivizing illegal entry by offering free health care and other benefits are more bad ideas. If these proposals are put into practice they would lead to terrible outcomes for the United States. I strongly oppose decriminalization.

Harrison: No, we should not decriminalize illegal border crossings. Our goal should be to protect our borders and our national security, while instituting humane policies that reflect our values as a nation of immigrants. For centuries, our country has welcomed people fleeing religious persecution, war and humanitarian crises to create a better future for themselves and their futures. With proper safeguards in place, we should offer refuge to some migrants with legitimate fears of persecution and violence. After all, scripture tells us, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Our country cannot ignore the situations that refugees are escaping either. We must pursue diplomatic and economic solutions that encourage prosperity in places like Central America.

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Do you support President Trump’s efforts to build a physical wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico?

Graham: I support President Trump's efforts to build a physical wall in border areas where it makes sense. I've seen his plan. I support his plan. In previous immigration proposals I supported over $40 billion for various forms of border security, including physical barriers.

Harrison: There are places along the border where a wall makes tactical sense. But given wide differences in topography, land rights, and other issues, it is not feasible nor cost-effective to construct a sea-to-sea barrier between our countries. Efforts to secure funding for this have hurt South Carolina. Lindsey Graham played a key role in a national emergency declaration to fund the border wall, which diverted $11 million away from the construction of a new, sorely needed fire station at Beaufort’s Marine Corps Air Station. He promised the money would come back, but we still haven’t seen it. This is just another example of Lindsey Graham playing political games with serious challenges facing our country.

President Trump has significantly decreased limits on the number of refugees who can be admitted to the U.S. each year. Denials for H-1B visas have also increased under the Trump administration. Do you support or oppose those efforts? What do you believe appropriate limits would be?

Graham: I believe in meeting the needs of our economy when it comes to legal immigration. When an American company cannot find an American worker to fill a job, after advertising at a competitive wage with benefits, then they may access workers from abroad. These workers must be paid fair wages so as not to displace or disadvantage American workers. We have a declining population, and we need to supplement our workforce in a rational way. H-1B workers come from the high-tech, STEM area, of which there is a shortage of in the United States. As to refugees, I believe it is incumbent upon the United States to do our fair share but to make sure the vetting is sufficient to avoid national security problems. There have been many episodes in Europe where terrorists have infiltrated the refugee flow, causing great harm. We must have a balanced approach of admission of refugees with a very strong vetting program from troubled regions.

Harrison: America was built, in part, by those who came here fleeing violence and persecution in search of a better life. I believe that we should continue to be a beacon of hope for those people in distress, and accept a number of refugees who can be adequately screened before relocation. I disagree with those who want to shut down the H-1B Visa program. These visas should be an option for companies who have to hire specialized roles but cannot find domestic workers with the requisite expertise. Reliance on this program underscores the need to improve our job training programs in South Carolina, by investing to make sure students are ready to fill the high-paying jobs of tomorrow.

Do you support detaining asylum-seeking families in non-prison settings until their asylum claims can be processed, or should they be released into the country while awaiting a decision?

Graham: One of the biggest improvements has been the willingness of Mexico to hold asylum seekers in Mexico until their hearing date in the U.S. so the person is not released into the U.S. President Trump deserves credit for bringing about this change. Our asylum laws have been abused and people are playing the system. Under the old system all you had to do was claim asylum. You would then have a hearing date which could be years away. In the meantime, the asylum seeker would be released into the United States and the vast majority never showed up for the hearing. The biggest change on asylum claims has been the Triangle Nations of Central America and Mexico allowing adjudication in their countries and holding people as they await their hearings in the U.S. To deter another wave of illegal immigration, it is imperative that we do away with the policy of sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are magnets for illegal immigration and create safe havens for criminals as well as migrants.

Harrison: As a father and a Christian, I cannot support any immigration process that breaks families apart or separates innocent children from their parents. Make no mistake: Policies that separate young kids from their parents or guardians have profound, long-term consequences on children, who did not arrive here on their own volition. We need leaders who will stand up for America’s values of decency and respect, but Lindsey Graham is not that leader. He’s made it perfectly clear that he’s for the detention of asylum seekers and migrants in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities. He said, "I don't care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days." That kind of callousness does not reflect the values of South Carolina.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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