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South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has completed a remarkable transformation in the last three-plus years – from an outspoken critic of candidate Donald Trump’s “mean” anti-immigration rhetoric to a full-throated fan of President Donald Trump’s border-wall hostage-taking of the U.S. government during the ongoing and longest federal shutdown in history.
“There are people running for president on the Republican side who have said some very mean things that are continuing a narrative that is killing us,” Graham said at an Aspen Ideas Festival event I attended in 2015 when Graham was part of jam-packed field of Republican president candidates. His theory was that GOP anti-immigrant policies would cost Latino votes.
Graham at the time was making the point that now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election because he backed the policy of self-deportation and therefore got only 27 percent of the Latino vote. Trump, of course, launched his campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans drug dealers and rapists and just kept piling on the hateful insults leading up to November 2016, when he still got 29 percent of the Latino vote and won the White House.
Three and a half years after calling out Trump’s “mean” speech, Graham is backing the border-wall shutdown and urging the president to “dig in” on his pet issue of spending nearly $6 billion to build more than 200 additional miles of wall (notwithstanding his campaign promise Mexico would pay for it). But listen to where Graham was in the summer of 2015 in Aspen:
“A young woman comes here in the late 80s with one child and she has two more,” Graham said at the time. “She’s been cleaning our toilets, she’s been servicing our hotels; she’s been working four jobs to raise three kids. Two of them are American citizens because they were born here. One of the three is now a Marine on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He’s come back home and says, ‘where’s mom?’ ‘You haven’t heard? She’s walking back to Mexico.’”
Despite his seemingly newfound hardline stance against immigrants and his backing of Trump’s border wall, Graham did recently convene a group of wavering Republican senators to discuss trading renewal of President Barack Obama’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) for border-wall funding. That’s likely going nowhere because hardliners consider protection for children brought here at a young age a form of dreaded amnesty they cannot abide.
That and rightwing commentator Ann Coulter, who is apparently responsible for the current government shutdown, favors deporting DACA recipients, or Dreamers — most of whom are going to school, working, paying taxes and even serving in the military. Trump is taking his cues directly from Coulter despite previously promising to show “great love” to DACA Dreamers.
Back in 2015, Graham not only opposed self-deportation, he also favored a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
“Most people here illegally are here to work,” Graham said. “Self-deportation means that you break up families. 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 [of work visas] in Europe.”
Graham also discussed how he lost both of his parents to severe illness by the time he was 22
“My family was destroyed by illness. I’ll not destroy families just for the hell of it, and that’s what self-deportation does,” Graham said. “If we don’t fix immigration, do you agree that we can’t have the workforce that we need going forward? We just don’t have enough people to work.”
Graham sounded then like a man who had compassion for why illegal immigrants are coming to the United States and what our broken immigration system is putting those people through, and yet he now backs the president in his political ploy to appeal to his base on border-wall funding – a president who manufactured a crisis with his zero-tolerance, family-separation policy.
Democrats, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, already passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that would have provided a staggering $40 billion in border security, including barriers. It never saw the light of day in GOP Rep. John Boehner’s House.
And just last year Democrats offered Trump $25 billion for what experts say will be a largely ineffective border wall in exchange for DACA protections, but Trump killed that deal in pursuit of increased restrictions on legal immigration. Again, U.S. taxpayers would have footed that bill, not Mexico.
At this point it’s clear that Trump doesn’t want to compromise at all to get a wall he’s only really digging in on in order to score political points and please his Fox and Friends base. Any concessions to Democrats now will just draw Coulter’s ire and shift the criticism to “amnesty,” “anchor babies,” or some other tried-and-true racist catchphrase.
And as long as that’s the political reality, Trump enablers like Graham will no doubt continue to subvert their own value systems in favor of scoring points with a hate-mongering president who will keep clinging to power by dividing the country and sowing the misplaced seeds of fear.