South Carolina becomes ground zero for immigration reform ad wars

Liz Goodwin

One of the most active states in the ad wars over immigration reform is far from the border—and doesn't even have a large population of foreign workers.

South Carolina, however, is home to two key figures in the push to legalize the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and reform the immigration system: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is part of a Senate working group drafting a bill, and Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, who heads the House's immigration subcommittee.

Graham, who could face a primary challenge when he runs for re-election in 2014, has in particular become a target of the ads. NumbersUSA, which opposes legalizing undocumented immigrants and favors lower rates of legal immigration, blanketed South Carolina TV stations with ads last month that accused Graham of supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants when unemployment rates for native-born workers is high.

In response, a newly formed super PAC called Republicans for Immigration Reform is defending Graham against those charges. The ads, which start this week, feature Charleston Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Derreberry praising Graham for fighting for "modern immigration laws" that will help the economy.

"Sen. Graham is right on target. ... We have to be able to update our immigration laws," Derreberry says.

Meanwhile, evangelical leaders who support immigration reform are launching their own radio advertisement buy in the state, flooding Christian stations with 450 spots about how Christians are called to welcome immigrants and offer them a path to citizenship. The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land told reporters on Wednesday that the group of pastors and Christian leaders hopes to counter those who oppose immigration reform by encouraging congregants to call Gowdy, Graham and other politicians and demand immigration reform. The group has already organized hundreds of calls to lawmakers.

"We certainly appreciate Sen. Graham's leadership on this issue both in the last reform debate and this one," Land said. "We believe that that kind of courageous leadership should be supported."