BEDFORD, N.H. (AP) – Sen. Lindsey Graham isn't shy about engaging with Republican primary voters on his support for a path to legal status for people in the country illegally, despite the ire that position draws from many conservatives key to a presidential nomination.
While visiting the early voting state of New Hampshire on Monday, the South Carolina senator said Republicans need to work with Democrats to craft a plan that secures the border and creates a path to legal status for the 11 million people who are living in the U.S. illegally. He says asking those people to leave on their own is not realistic.
"I've got one goal: Fix this permanently," Graham told a voter who asked for his stance on the issue.
"Our beloved Ronald Reagan gave 3 million people amnesty and they did not secure the border, they did not increase legal immigration or change how you control who gets a job," he said. "If you don't do those three things, you will have wave after wave after wave, but if you do these things right that will be the end of illegal immigration."
Graham's 10-minute answer came after he delivered remarks to a business-oriented audience on the threat of the Islamic State and the need for overhauling entitlements.
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Immigration has become a sticky subject for Senate Republicans who backed an overhaul bill and is likely to become a divisive issue in the Republican presidential primary. In Iowa this weekend, both Graham and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said people already here should have a path toward legal status. Both are weighing a presidential bid.
The senator said he does not fear the repercussions of sharing his immigration views in a Republican primary.
"All I can say is that we need to fix immigration — it's a national security issue, it's a cultural issue and it's an economic issue," he told reporters. "I am not going to give an inch on the idea."
Graham said Republicans won't get enough support to secure the border and overhaul the legal immigration system if they don't also consider creating legal status for the people who are already here illegally, he said. Calling Hispanics "the most patriotic people I've ever met," Graham said self-deportation is not a realistic or fair option.
He outlined a fictional scenario of a young Hispanic-American man who joins the U.S. military and returns from duty to learn his grandmother is being asked to leave the country.
"He's probably going to have a hard time listening to my economic plan for revitalizing America if he believes I'm the guy that wants his grandmother to walk back to Mexico," Graham said.