MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Blaise Tishey lays bricks for a living, and for a long time he had more work than he could handle building the high-rise condos and hotels that line the beaches.
Then, a few years ago, as the surging housing market sparked a major construction boom, his workload slackened. An influx of undocumented Hispanic immigrants willing to work for smaller paychecks made it harder for him to find jobs, he said.
“I wasn’t willing to work for wages that would have required me to move my family into a trailer with 15 other people,” he said.
Polls show illegal immigration is a top issue for voters in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South presidential primary Jan. 19. Yet less than a week from the primary, anti-illegal immigrant sentiment has not had nearly the impact on the GOP race that many political observers here expected.
The candidates leading in state polls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, are also the candidates tagged as softest on the issue by anti-illegal immigrant groups.
“It’s a paradox of the electorate. Even though they say it’s their top issue, it appears that they are willing to overlook it,” or look at it in concert with other issues, said Tim Dale, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Every Republican candidate says the border with Mexico needs to be strengthened. But the field is at odds over how best to handle the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country illegally.
In the Senate, McCain co-sponsored legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship. His opponents deride that as “amnesty” while supporters say deporting 12 million people would be impossible – and would cripple the economy.
Huckabee takes a harder line. He and others argue that immigrants who broke the law to come here should be forced to return home and “get in line” to return legally.
Despite that, Huckabee has come under fire for his support of a plan to allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Arkansas universities.
Tishey, the bricklayer, has discounted both candidates for their immigration stances. He is supporting former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, whom Tishey said would take a harder line against illegal immigrants.
“The war and immigration are the biggest issues for me. Some people say the economy, but for me, immigration is an economic issue,” said Tishey, who recently launched a Web site for people to report businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
A Rasmussen poll of South Carolina Republicans in December found immigration was the top issue for 24 percent of likely voters, followed by the economy at 23 percent, national security at 18 percent and the Iraq war at 17 percent.
In upstate regions, workers have seen manufacturing jobs disappear as companies have moved plants to countries like China and Mexico. The backlash against illegal immigrants here is “the flip side” of that outsourcing issue, Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said in an interview.
“Instead of the plant leaving, now they’re worried about someone coming here and taking their job. It’s all about the pocketbook,” said Sanford, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate.
Along the coast, business leaders in the tourism and construction industries say the economy could not function without immigrant workers.
Native-born workers still fill most of the area’s tourism jobs, but Hispanic immigrants have taken most of the low-wage jobs that have been added over the last few years, said Brad Dean, who runs the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Businesses are no longer complaining about not being able to find workers, as they were a few years ago, so I suspect the influx of Hispanic immigrants has filled that need,” he said.
Summer temporary workers are the lifeblood of the tourism industry, and there are not enough natives to fill those jobs, he said. Businesses would prefer to hire foreign students on temporary visas over undocumented workers. But a cap on those visas has made it tough to bring in enough students.
“Yesterday, I had a conversation with a business that provides lifeguards for the beaches. They will have unfilled jobs this year,” because of the lack of student visas, he said.
Other factors have helped vault McCain and Huckabee to the front of the pack, USC’s Dale said.
Strong support from evangelical voters has helped Huckabee, a former Baptist minister. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, has found support among the large population of active-duty military and veterans.
“In South Carolina, we’re going to elect a president on a bunch of issues, and illegal immigration is only one of those issues,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain supporter, said in an interview.