Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of those in the meeting Thursday where President Trump reportedly called some developing nations “sh—hole” countries, used similar language himself during the last big immigration debate, calling Mexico and other Latin American nations “hellholes.”
The South Carolina Republican was arguing for the need for stiffer enforcement to stop a new wave of illegal immigrants, blaming the jobs magnet for enticing millions of people to flee their home countries for the U.S.
“The people coming across the southern border live in hellholes. They don’t like that. They want to come here. Our problem is we can’t have everybody in the world who lives in a hellhole come to America,” Mr. Graham said during a 2013 debate in the Judiciary Committee on an immigration bill he co-authored.
The senator continued: “There are 11 million people coming through the southern border ‘cause they come from countries where they can’t find work, and life is miserable. So it seems to me that if you can control who gets a job you’ve gone a long way in controlling illegal immigration. Because as long as the jobs are available in America you can’t build a fence high enough to stop people.”
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, now Mr. Trump’s attorney general, stepped in to correct his colleague.
“It’s not a hellhole, it has great things going on in Mexico, we’re proud of the people in Mexico,” Mr. Sessions said.
“You’re right,” Mr. Graham replied. “I wasn’t slandering Mexico, I was just talking about all the places people want to leave, for whatever reason.”
Mr. Graham was one of the members of the Gang of Eight senators who wrote the 2013 immigration deal that was under debate at the time of his comments. That bill cleared the Senate — after an injection of border security money — but was never sent to the House for action.
Five of those members, including Mr. Graham, are back at the table again trying to write a new deal this year legalizing Dreamers while ticking off some of Mr. Trump’s enforcement wish-list.
At a meeting Thursday Mr. Graham Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, presented a proposal that included a generous pathway to citizenship for perhaps 2 million illegal immigrants, gives the president less than 10 percent of his proposed border wall, and cuts the chain of family migration by, at best, 3 percent. The new plan does nix the Diversity Visa Lottery, as Mr. Trump requested, but uses those visas to create a second pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of would-be illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and other countries that have suffered natural disasters or wars.
It was that last proposal that appeared to irk Mr. Trump, who reportedly called those nations “sh—hole countries.” The president denies making the remark, while Mr. Durbin on Friday confirmed the reported remarks to the press in Chicago.
Condemnation has come from all sides, with the countries Mr. Trump reportedly disparaged registering official complaints.
Many minority leaders and immigrant-rights groups labeled the president “racist.”
The questions followed Mr. Trump to the White House, during an event commemorating next week’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“Mr. President, are you a racist?” a reporter shouted to the president, who did not reply.
Mr. Graham on Thursday released a statement where he didn’t characterize the president’s remarks in the meeting, but did signal he took umbrage at whatever words the president used.
“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals,” Mr. Graham said.
“The American ideal is embraced by people all over the globe. It was best said a long time ago, E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration we cannot lose these American ideals,” he continued. “The American people will ultimately judge us on the outcome we achieve, not the process which led to it.