Graham: 2016 hinges on immigration

Washington (CNN) — If Republicans don’t wield their congressional majority next year to pass immigration reform legislation, a GOP takeover of the White House in 2016 will be “difficult, if not impossible,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said during a CNN interview released on Sunday.

Graham, a Republican who has long-favored comprehensive immigration reform, said he believes the GOP has hurt itself with Hispanic voters due to its resistance to reforming the current system. And without a major change, Democrats will get another four years in the Oval Office, Graham told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

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“If we don’t at least make a down payment on solving the problem and rationally dealing with the 11 million [illegal immigrants believed to be in the U.S.], if we become the party of self-deportation in 2015 and 2016, then the chance of winning the White House I think is almost non-existent,” he said.

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But Graham, who is mulling a 2016 presidential run, slammed President Barack Obama’s executive action last month to safeguard as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. He accused the President of “acting in a rogue fashion” for “political reasons.”

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Republicans, though, need to “do more than just fight the executive order,” he added.

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Graham supports giving a pathway to citizenship to the so-called DREAMers — undocumented immigrants who crossed into the U.S. illegally as children and have lived in the U.S. since. And in 2014, Graham showed the political viability of his position by successfully beating back a tough primary challenge in his conservative state by reaffirming — rather than running away from — his stance on immigration.

“If the Republican Party cannot muster the political courage to deal with the DREAM Act children in a fair and balanced way after we secure our border, that says a a lot about the Republican Party’s future regarding the Hispanic community,” Graham said. “I don’t believe most Americans would fault the Republican Party if we allowed children who have been here since they’re babies to assimilate into society with a pathway to citizenship after we secure our borders.”

Graham was one of the most ardent supporters of a bipartisan immigration bill he helped negotiate in 2013 that passed the Senate but did not get a vote in the House. The bill would have bolstered border security and created a path to citizenship for millions — many of whom are now getting temporary relief under Obama’s executive action.

And while Graham’s name didn’t make the cut in the latest CNN/ORC poll, another candidate who supports immigration reform is leading a crowded field of potential Republican presidential candidates. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush snagged 23% of Republican support in the survey released Sunday.

While Graham said Bush would be “an excellent candidate” who could win the presidency in 2016, he insisted the race for the Republican nomination is still “wide open.”

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“It’s like preseason polling in football. You really don’t know, do the pads connect? But I think it’s good news for Jeb Bush at least initially,” Graham said.

Graham hasn’t yet decided on a 2016 run, which he will consider more seriously next year, but he did tout his “unique” qualifications to be President in a period of tumultuous global affairs.

“I think over the last several years I’ve been more right than wrong when it comes to foreign policy, that the next President of the United States has got a world on fire,” Graham said. “I think I have a unique capability to do things like that.”

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