Lindsey Graham Hates the GOP's Immigration Rhetoric

The senator accused some of his Republican rivals of being “mean” when they talk about immigrants––and doesn’t think his openness to amnesty will sink his primary campaign.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina excoriated fellow Republicans Monday in portions of an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival that focused on immigration. Some of his rivals in the race for the GOP nomination have said “mean” things on that subject, he argued, casting immigration restrictionists as political liabilities who share the blame for his party’s loss in Election 2012.

“Mitt Romney is one of the most decent people I've ever met,” Graham said. “His biggest mistake was adopting self-deportation. We had too many debates. He got pushed too far to the right. How do you win the White House with 27 percent of the Hispanic vote?”

Senator Graham really hates the policy of self-deportation.  

At one point, he mused about a young, undocumented woman coming to the United States in the late 1980s to clean toilets and service hotels. She arrived with one child and had two more over the years, he said––the latter two being U.S. citizens.

One is a Marine on his second tour in Afghanistan.

As Graham imagines it, the Marine comes home and says, “Where’s mom?” only to get the reply, "You haven't heard? She's walking back to Mexico." He adds, “Self-deportation means that you drive them out. Self-deportation means you break up families.”

That’s a sensitive subject.

“When I was 21 my mom died,” he said. “When I was 22 my dad died. Neither one of my parents finished high school. We owned a liquor store, a bar, and a pool room. That's why I'm well-qualified to be president. My family was destroyed by illness. I will not destroy families just for the hell of it. And that's what self-deportation is.”

He finds other Republican ideas about immigration impractical. “We're going to be down to two workers for every retiree in the next 20 years,” he explained. “So when I hear a Republican say, ‘We need to cap legal immigration,’ what world are you looking at?”

But he’s against long-term guest workers who can’t become citizens.

“Most people here illegally are here to work––do you agree? They come from poor and corrupt countries,” he said. “Nobody wants a felon to stay. Nobody wants a troublemaker. But most of the people here have been working very hard. And the reason I want a pathway to citizenship is I don't like the underclass approach to America. I don't like the hired help approach that Europe has, where you come to a European country, you live there all your life, but you can't be part of that country.”

He doesn’t expect that these ideas will prevent him from winning GOP primaries––he easily won his last election, garnering 41 percent of the vote in  field of six. 65 percent of Republicans support a comprehensive approach to immigration,” he declared. “Don’t tell me about my party. I come from the reddest of red states. I won being Lindsey Graham. I didn’t work around immigration and say, well, I’m not really for it but I am for it. I told people that you can’t fix it without Democratic support; if you don’t control who gets a job it doesn’t matter how high you build a fence; and 11 million people ain’t gonna walk back to Mexico. Keep ‘em here, make ‘em learn our language, pay taxes, and get in the back of  the line.”

He’d also urge assimilation.

“We've moved,” he said of his political party. “Self-deportation is in our rearview mirror. But there are people who are running for president on the Republican side who've said some very mean things that are continuing a narrative that is killing us.”