Is Senator Graham Sending Mixed Signals on Immigration Reform?

Two days after President Obama met with Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Graham (R-SC) to discuss moving forward on immigration reform, Senator Graham appeared on a Sunday morning talk show where he criticized President Obama and his “unwavering commitment” to immigration reform as “political spin” in response to plans for a large immigration rally next week. Graham delivered a one-two punch, chastising the President not only for pursuing reconciliation in order to pass healthcare reform, but for failing to get his hands dirty on immigration. On the one hand, Graham made it clear that he will continue to work with Senator Schumer to produce a public document laying out reform principles, but on the other he challenged the President to put his commitment on the line by writing his own bill. No matter how you read the statement, the evident frustration in Graham’s voice suggests that there is something more here than political grandstanding.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Graham addressed a variety of topics including health care and the closing of Guantanamo Bay, challenging the president to lead and make compromises. He saved his most pointed words, however, for immigration:

The idea that the president has‬‪ been unwavering on immigration doesn’t really pass the smell test. One line in the State of the Union that was unnoticeable is not‬‪ ‘unwavering.’ A hastily called meeting Thursday because of a rally next‬‪ weekend is not ‘unwavering,’ it’s CYA. (short for ‘covering your [butt]’).

Unwavering is sending two Cabinet‬‪ members over to the House and the Senate two hours a day for two months‬‪ with dozens of senators trying to write a bill .‬‪.. President Obama has not been‬‪ unwavering on immigration reform. He has pretty much ignored it because‬‪ he has been consumed by health care.

…This idea that this administration has been unwavering on immigration reform is just political spin, and the people at the rally ought to know that.

President Obama: lead. You‬‪ write an…immigration reform bill. You do the heavy‬‪ lifting. You put together a comprehensive immigration reform package. ‬‪You bring it to the Senate and House and see how many Democrat and‬‪ Republican supporters you can get. ‬‪All you have done is talk about what we should do, now is the time‬‪ to lead.

Fairly strong words for someone who, just days before, sat down with the President to discuss a bipartisan way forward on an immigration bill and called for more public support from the White House.

And yet, Sen. Graham has long been a supporter of immigration reform. Back in 2007, Graham called out anti-immigrant rhetoric as bigoted and discussed a desire to fix our broken immigration system at an NCLR awards ceremony. In the same year, Sen. Graham supported S.1639, an immigration bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jon McCain and Ted Kennedy, despite cries of “Grahamnesty” from his own party. While Graham doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to harsh immigration enforcement measures, he still agreed to help Sen. Schumer garner GOP support for a comprehensive immigration bill in 2009. Furthermore, Sen. Graham stated (in the same ABC interview) that he will continue to work with Sen. Schumer on producing a blueprint for moving forward—clearly a sign that Graham hasn’t yet given up on the process.

However, in a press statement following his Thursday meeting with President Obama and Sen. Schumer, Sen. Graham warned the President that using reconciliation to push health care through would halt immigration reform and “make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration.” That coupled with his talk show criticism of the President suggests that Graham is taking Obama’s political strategies very personally. The question is, will the personal get in the way of the getting the job done?

Either way you slice it, playing politics with immigration reform is likely to get in the way of real progress—especially for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who need reform legislation the most. Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it best:

Sen. Lindsey Graham should be commended for his willingness to work across the aisle on big issues like energy and climate change, treatment of detainees and immigration reform. But what exactly should the administration do with a threat of this sort? It could give up on health care, I suppose, and leave 30 million people without insurance and everyone else crossing their fingers that they don’t develop a “pre-existing condition” at the wrong time. Or it could abandon immigration reform, keep jailing and deporting 400,000 people a year and keep sending back home the bright foreign students who want to build companies and employ Americans but can’t face a 10- or 15-year wait for a green card. The problem with these political parlor games is that they hurt real people in the real world.

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