Former Senator Rick Santorum.
The senator, who is expected to announce a second presidential bid this month, had placed a distant third in 2012’s South Carolina primary. In the halls of the downtown Peace Center, though, his message had sunk in. “We may need to lower the influx,” said activist John Schafer, 70. “There are only so many people who can come in at one time. And that’s just the legal people. The illegals are illegal and they need to stay that way.”
Santorum was continuing a conversation elevated recently by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Last month, he sounded the alarm about legal immigration and called for a policy “that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages.” He credited Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican and outspoken advocate of reducing legal immigration levels.
The governor’s remarks, which came in an interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck, were rebuked by senior senators in his party who have aligned more closely with the business community in supporting legal immigration. That group included South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is likely to announce his own presidential bid in June—and has already said he’ll pick a fight with the immigration restrictionists who have opposed him but failed to defeat him at the polls.
Graham was invited to the summit, tentatively agreed to come, and then canceled for a family engagement, according to spokesman Kevin Bishop and Citizens United spokesman Bryan Lanza (the group helped organize the event). But other Republicans were on hand to argue that another immigration battle—much less a battle over legal immigration—was not in the party’s interest.
“I’m disappointed to hear a high-ranking member of my party taking that position,” said South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney, a conservative elected in 2010. “That’s not how we built this country. Listen, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about unskilled labor, and a 10th grade education or whatever to get here, but if that were the case my family would not have gotten here from Ireland. They were unskilled workers and they helped build this country. It’s not quite xenophobia, but it’s moving that way.”
Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, gestures after speaking during the South Carolina Freedom Summit in Greenville, S.C., on May 9, 2015.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said in an interview that the federal government should do nothing on immigration before it secures the border (though he didn’t precisely define what constitutes a secure border).
“What Congress needs to do right now—we don’t need a comprehensive bill, they need to secure the border,” he said. “Our immigration system is broken. We’ve got a low wall and a narrow gate. I think we need a high wall and a broad gate. But right now what we need to do is to secure the border.”
Jindal lambasted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s proposal to expand President Barack Obama’s executive actions protecting young undocumented people by also shielding the parents who brought them to the country illegally. “I think it’s an absolute mistake. You’re talking about an executive order that’s in contradiction to the Constitution,” he said, arguing that the party should run against the Democrats’ proposals.
Clinton’s expansive offer to Hispanic voters earlier in the week further complicated the Republican predicament between base voters who harbor immigration anxieties and wealthy donors who view a pro-immigration stance as necessary to win the general election next November. None of the top three Republican candidates—former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Walker—mentioned the issue of immigration in their major speeches Saturday. Bush spoke at the evangelical Liberty University in Virginia; Rubio and Walker spoke at the South Carolina event.
Yet the latter provided some reminders of how the debate could follow candidates, and why Democrats saw a benefit in forcing it. Iowa Representative Steve King, who is nationally known for raising hackles about illegal immigration, channeled conservative worries about the legal kind after his speech. While making clear his priority was illegal immigration, he said it has “always been baloney” when employers say they can’t find Americans to employ.
“I want to upgrade the quality and the standards of the people coming into this country legally,” he said, “and if that includes reducing the numbers to some degree, that’s fine with me.”
In 2008 and 2012, debates like these occasionally roiled the Republican field. The 2016 race will have voices that weren’t as loud then—the voices of first-generation Americans now holding powerful roles, or running for president themselves. Rubio and Jindal both told that story in their Greenville speeches. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could tell the same story. After his remarks, which did not spend much time on immigration policy, Texas Senator Ted Cruz reaffirmed that he favored legal immigration, and did not agree that every immigrant was taking a job that rightfully belonged to someone born in America.
“I am the son of an immigrant who came here legally, who followed the rules, but came seeking the American dream,” said Cruz. “You know, Ronald Reagan referred to legal immigrants as Americans by choice. I think it entirely possible to welcome and celebrate legal immigrants and also to defend the rule of law.”