Graham: Illegal immigrants come to U.S. from "hellholes"

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the "gang of eight" bipartisan senators who drafted the comprehensive immigration reform bill, attempted on Thursday to cast the immigration debate as an economic issue but ended up having to clarify that his remarks weren't meant as a slight to Mexico.

"I don't know how many fences we have on our Canadian border," Graham said in a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. "Why are we OK up there and not OK to the south?"

It's "the tale of two borders," Graham continued. "Why is one a problem and the other is not? Because Canada is a place that people like to stay. They like Canada, we like Canada."

By contrast, he said, "The people coming across this other border live in hellholes. Our problem is we can't have everybody who lives in a hellhole coming to America. If you don't agree the difference [between the borders] is jobs, we just don't agree."

Rather than worrying about building a fence or creating even more border security, Graham argued that the government should primarily try to deter illegal immigration by making sure undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can't get jobs. If there are jobs available, he said, "You can't build a fence high enough to stop people."

The senator later called the E-Verify program that would be used to ensure that employers don't hire undocumented workers a "virtual fence" that will deter illegal immigration.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. -- who has expressed concern both about the levels of legal and illegal immigration -- stepped in to clarify Graham's remarks.

Sessions said of Mexico, "While there's poverty in some areas, it's not a hellhole. We are proud of the people of Mexico."

Graham then responded, "I wasn't slandering Mexico, I was just talking about all the places people want to leave for whatever reason."

While Graham had to walk back the language he used to refer to immigrants from Mexico, the larger point is one that others, including the Obama administration, agree with: the root cause of the illegal immigration issue is a lack of jobs in Mexico and other areas from which undocumented workers migrate.

"Economic development in Mexico will ultimately get at the root cause of illegal immigration in the United States," Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said last week ahead of President Obama's trip to Mexico. On that trip, Mr. Obama largely focused on the economy and trade pacts.

Data shows that 80 percent of illegal immigration to the United States comes from Mexico and Latin America, the Associated Press reported in December. However, illegal immigration has dropped in recent years. And in 2011, Asian immigration to the U.S. topped Hispanic immigration for the first time since 1910, according to the AP.

Schumer, Sessions spar over immigration, employment

The issue of the economy was a prominent one Thursday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee convened to begin the long process of considering the hundreds of amendments committee members have introduced to the bill.

Sessions worried that giving a pathway to citizenship for the nation's undocumented workers would allow them to compete for better jobs. "They'll then be virtually able to take any job in the marketplace," he said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that those immigrants are already here. "By the way, they're competing for jobs right now," he said. "I would argue they lower the wage scale much more than if they were registered and working in a legal way, but they're here."

In spite of Graham's comments about the Canadian border, the committee adopted by unanimous consent an amendment from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to apply border security strategies to "all" border sectors -- not just "high-risk" ones.

At the same time, the committee voted against an amendment from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would have required full congressional approval of the level of border security before a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents is put into motion.

Graham and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. -- another Republican on the "gang of eight" -- both voted against Lee's amendment, demonstrating the way the current immigration debate has transcended partisan divides.