Sen. Graham Backs Away From Immigration Talks

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had been the one Republican negotiating with Democrats to bring an immigration bill to the Senate floor this year. Now, he says it would be a mistake to have such a bill, and he won't be a part of it.

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One Republican Senator had been negotiating an immigration bill with Senate Democrats and today he said he saw no chance for such a bill this year. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Congress should instead focus on stronger border enforcement. But Democrats point to a controversial new statute in Arizona as proof that the time has come for a national overhaul of immigration law.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Senator Graham brought up immigration at an oversight hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Janet Napolitano was on hand as Secretary of Homeland Security. But Graham also raised the issue because Napolitano's previous job was governor of Arizona.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): And your state of Arizona is made up of a lot of good people. You would agree with that?

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): Absolutely.

Sec. GRAHAM: Well, look what good people will do when they're under siege.

GONYEA: Arizona has just enacted the toughest law in the country, allowing authorities to demand documents from anyone they see on the street and suspect of being in the country illegally. Critics have said the law all but mandates racial profiling and it's been called unconstitutional by observers, including Graham himself in today's hearing.

Sen. GRAHAM: What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out of control border, that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional. It doesn't represent the best way forward and it is impossible for me and any other serious Democrat to get this body to move forward until we prove to the American people we can secure our borders.

GONYEA: Secretary Napolitano has a different view of the border. And she thinks Arizona makes the case for a federal overhaul.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: We need to continue with all of our efforts to secure the border. And the numbers are better than they have ever been. But I would also suggest that the passage of laws like that at the state level illustrate the need for Congress to move ahead on...

GONYEA: Graham has been seen as the one Republican most likely to move a comprehensive bill forward, negotiating for months with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. But today he said the drug wars in Mexico meant the border situation had to be addressed before doing anything about the 12 million or more who are here illegally now.

Sen. GRAHAM: Let's get this environment corrected on border security, move forward in a comprehensive fashion, secure the border, protect America and be fair to the 12 million people, but also be firm that we're never going to have 20 million more in the future.

GONYEA: The Senate tried and failed in 2007 to pass border controls and a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Graham said today that same bill would not have a chance and he put the question to Napolitano.

Sen. GRAHAM: I would bet everything I own that the answer is this 2007 bill will not pass. And you agree with that or not?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: I will bet you everything I own that the Congress needs to take up immigration reform because it's not going to go away.

Sen. GRAHAM: Yes, ma'am.

GONYEA: Graham then said he believed the Hispanic community deserves relief from current laws, adding...

Sen. GRAHAM: The last thing that could ever happen in my view to get that relief is to bring up a bill where there is no hope of it passing.

GONYEA: All would agree there is no hope of a bill this year without the support of at least some Republicans. And the one most inclined to help appeared to be ending that hope today.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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