Immigration reform supporters finally got their long-awaited town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford.
More than 200 people packed the Holy Family Catholic Church on Sunday afternoon on Hilton Head Island to question Sanford about his stance on immigration at a meeting set up by the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, which supports comprehensive immigration reform.
Sanford does not support an immigration bill the U.S. Senate passed in June, which would increase border security and create a 13-year wait for citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. Sanford said Sunday he felt his stance against a comprehensive immigration plan "represented the majority of the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina."
Since the bill's passing, the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition has lobbied for a town hall meeting in Beaufort County. Coalition co-chairman George Kanuck said preparation for meeting with Sanford began in July, well before Kanuck and other coalition leaders sat down with Sanford at his Beaufort office to talk about immigration in November.
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The assembled crowd, nearly all of whom were immigrants, let Sanford know their fears about deportation and their hopes for citizenship and reform, sometimes to emotional effect.
One woman tearfully recounted how her husband had been picked up by immigration services and deported after living in the U.S. for 17 years. The woman, pausing to compose herself, told Sanford she had no money to buy her three children Christmas presents and had to sell a car to pay rent.
Beth McCafferty, who teaches English as a second language, told Sanford a similar story to open the meeting. McCafferty said a former student's widowed father was arrested for a traffic infraction in the spring and was later deported, leaving the student in the care of another student's family from her class. Neither student returned to class in the fall, McCafferty said.
"There is a collective consciousness of fear among students from immigrant families that their parents could be deported," she said. "Families are broken. It's heartbreaking."
Sanford told the audience he could not support comprehensive immigration because of unanswered questions from Congress about the cost to implement and maintain a comprehensive plan, and about its enforcement after the battle over the Affordable Care Act.
He also pointed to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as a "bellwether" for the change in thought on immigration reform. Rubio changed his stance from supporting comprehensive reform to supporting a series of bills advocating a more piecemeal approach in October.
Kanuck said it didn't matter how progress on immigration reform was made, so long as action was taken.
"They cannot keep blaming someone else," he said. "They need to bring immigration reform, be it piecemeal or comprehensive. To do nothing is unacceptable. Mr. Sanford has heard the emotions and concerns of these people. He needs to be brave, be courageous and do something about it."
Sanford said he would support a stronger work visa program similar to the Bracero program, which was used through 1964 and allowed immigrants to obtain temporary work permits. Sanford said Democratic comprehensive reform plans don't include measures for work visas.
"The Democrats are against work visas," he said. "Even if comprehensive reform plans are passed, there will still be large numbers of illegal immigrants in industries like construction. We're not fixing what's driving the problem if we don't address work visas."
Sanford also said changes at the state level on immigration could be necessary, such as letting undocumented immigrants obtain driver's licenses.
Others in the audience, such as recent high school graduate Areli Fernandez, told Sanford about how her immigrant status prevented her from becoming a Marine. Sanford pointed to the DREAM Act as a solution for Fernandez's roadblock. The DREAM Act includes provisions for undocumented immigrants to enlist in the military and potentially gain citizenship.
Sanford said he would have to read the full DREAM Act proposal before deciding whether to support it. He added that a version by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is expected to be complete early next year.
Sanford and fiancee Maria Belen Chapur arrived shortly before the meeting's 2:30 p.m. start Sunday. Chapur was greeted to a rousing ovation at the meeting, causing Sanford to joke she got louder applause than he did.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.