U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham talks immigration, the Supreme Court and being hung in effigy

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on stage Monday before speaking at the Southern Legislative Conference.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to the 64th annual Southern Legislative Conference in Charleston. During a break Monday, Graham sat for a question-and-answer session with Post and Courier reporter Schuyler Kropf to discuss immigration, Supreme Court picks and being hanged in effigy. His comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Your recent call to revoke automatic birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants caught some advocates off guard, especially as many see you as a compromiser on immigration reform. What caused you to sign on now, and are you ready to rewrite the 14th Amendment?

A: What I'm trying to do is look at the incentives we have for legal immigration and reward those, and take the incentives for illegal immigration off the table.

Birthright citizenship is an anomaly in 2010. If you're here visiting Charleston from some foreign country, and you have a child here while on vacation, that child is an American citizen. No other country I know does that. If you go to England or France as a tourist, your child doesn't become a British or French citizen.

There are groups from China, the Mideast and Europe that are catering to the wealthy by selling tourist visas to come to America, have a child, make that child an American citizen, and go home. I think that's unseemly and it cheapens American citizenship.

Thousands of people are flooding hospitals along the border states -- illegal immigrants coming over for the express purpose of having a child. They advertise packages where you can pay $2,500 or $5,000 to sneak you across the border to go to an American hospital so the child can become an American citizen. I think that incentive will foster more illegal immigration. But that's just one part of the problem.

Q: Shaw Air Force Base recently lost out as one of the homes for the military's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Does this mean South Carolina is really starting to lose its military clout in Washington as the military's mission and size shrinks?

A: South Carolina and the Department of Defense, we've got a great relationship. Under the last Base Closure Commission, we grew in South Carolina. We wound up with more DOD jobs after BRAC (Base Closure and Realignment Commission) than before. The Charleston area had a net increase in terms of DOD.

Charleston Air Force Base is in great shape. We're building a new runway, we're expanding our footprint, the SPAWAR program is getting stronger. Most of the equipment shipped into the Middle East comes from Charleston, either by air or at sea.

The F-35s are coming out in three batches. We didn't get the F-35 the first time around. It's not "if" we'll get them, it's just "when" we'll get them.

Q: July was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with 66 reported fatalities. Is the mission there going as planned in your view?

A: Why did the Taliban come back? They don't have any tanks, they don't have an air force. The reason they came back is because the Afghan government has done a poor job of governing its own country. The Afghan security forces, the army and police, are beginning to show signs of progress. But they don't have enough numbers yet, so we're in the fight, we're in the lead role. Casualties will continue to increase because we're taking the fight to the enemy.

The goal is by next summer to have more Afghan soldiers and policemen out front. We're going to need to stay in Afghanistan militarily for a while to come.

Q: The Port of Charleston recently lost out over appropriations for $400,000 toward studying deepening the harbor. Some say it was clearly a fight over earmarks, and who supports them and how budgeting is done in Washington. Is it still go-along to get-along in Washington?

A: I want reform, but we're not going to get earmark reform next week or next year, probably. So I'm trying to find ways to put money in the budget to make sure we can study how deep the harbor needs to be to accept ships in 2014. New ships are coming through the Panama Canal -- huge ships, and they are looking for a place to dock.

It's a $3 million price tag to study how deep to make the harbor, then you've got to come up with $30 million to $60 million to deepen the harbor. It's going to take bipartisanship. It's going to take every member of the delegation working to get that done.

If we fail, if Charleston is the only harbor on the East Coast that doesn't get federal funds to study how deep it should be and actually dredge the harbor to accept new ships, we're going to lose market share and the port will cease to exist as we know it today. That's an unacceptable result.

Q: Finally, last month, protestors hanged you in effigy in Mount Pleasant for your support of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Have you ever been hanged in effigy before and what does it feel like?

A: (Laughs) I'm no worse for the wear. You can say and do just about anything you want to, within reason, to a politician, and I accept criticism. But one thing I'm not going to accept is the idea that it's bad to work with the other side.

When it comes to Elena Kagan, I would not have chosen her, she is a liberal. But President Obama won the election, and if I can't honor his picks if they are qualified in the mainstream of liberal thought, then how can I go to my Democratic colleagues and ask them to vote for a conservative judge?

I don't want to destroy the judiciary. I don't want to politicize the judiciary any more than we're doing. I think under the Constitution, my role in advise and consent is not to replace my judgment for that of the president but to make sure he is putting someone on the judiciary who is qualified, is not a crony, is not a political hack.

I voted for Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan not because I would have picked them, but because that's the way the Senate used to work.