Sen. Graham helps import Jamaicans for work at elite country club

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The 2012 PGA golf championship showcased the green links, yellow sands and blue skies at the beachside Kiawah country club in South Carolina.

But it also exposed the political maneuvering that annually brings about 170 low-wage black workers from Jamaica into South Carolina for temporary jobs that could otherwise have gone to local South Carolina workers.

Those low-wage workers helped the club’s financial returns, and indirectly, also helped South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has long pushed for an immigration rewrite that would import more low-wage foreign workers.

In February, Graham told a Rotary Club lunch in Easley, S.C., that he helped get H-2B guest-worker visas for the country club’s 2012 season.

“Graham said the Kiawah Golf Club advertised for 600-700 service positions in advance of hosting the PGA,” said a report by the South Carolina website

“They got 9 [American] applicants for these jobs,” Graham said. “Three of them failed the drug test. They ran out of visas … I had to go to beg the Department of Labor to give them a waiver so they could get people from Jamaica to come in here and service the PGA.”

In exchange for easing the import of foreign workers Graham received greater support from the business community, including political donations from Kiawah’s manager and owner.

Graham’s support for guest workers also earned him a warm welcome at the Kiawah club, where he’s expected to hold a fundraiser in October.

“I play here four, five times a year,” Graham said in a Sirius radio interview at Kiawah on Aug. 9, during the 2012 PGA championship. “If my last round of golf wasn’t at the masters, it would be at [Kiawah’s] ocean course,” he said.

“This is the only thing that gets me away from my job… I love to play, It is the best game in the world [and] the best time I ever had with my father was playing golf,” Graham added.

Although Graham pointed up the low number of local applicants for the golf course jobs, he ignored the challenges facing low-skill workers in the Palmetto State. In 2012, South Carolina was home to 337,000 unemployed low-skill workers, according to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that advocates reduced immigration.

That’s roughly 1,982 unemployed South Carolinians for every job awarded to the country’s club’s Jamaicans.

It’s also not clear that Graham provided as much help to Kiawah as he claimed. There is no mention in the labor department’s H-2B database that Kiawah got 600 to 700 H-2B visas in 2012.

Instead, the database shows that the country club and two subsidiaries won 172 visas in January 2012, similar to the 150 visas that it had won in the previous year.

The 172 visas that Kiawah got were for Jamaican hotel maids, waiters, cooks, porters, bellhops, and “recreation attendants.” Their pay ranged from $7.85 to $9.37 per hour, according to a Labor department Excel file.

“It is a lot more money than they could earn in their home country,” Kiawah’s president, Roger Warren, told The Daily Caller.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics say that American short-order cooks earn an average of $9.35 an hour in South Carolina. Maids and housekeepers earn $9.15 an hour, and recreation workers earned an average of $11.63 an hour in the state.

Neither Graham nor the Labor Department agreed to talk about Kiawah’s visas with TheDC.

However, Graham did vote [pdf] in a 2012 appropriations panel markup to stop proposed Labor Department regulations that would have forced Kiawah and other employers to pay for imported workers’ housing and flights.

“Like it or not, there are jobs in the construction field that are going unfilled after diligent advertising and paying the prevailing wage,” Graham said, according to an article in the Huffington Post. “Some of these jobs for whatever reason are seasonal, too.”

Graham’s 2012 vote was applauded by Kiawah’s manager, Warren. “Through legislation or the efforts of people like Lindsey Graham … [our legislators] have kept it from moving forward, which we appreciate,” he told TheDC, adding that Graham had been “very successful” in supporting the guest worker program.

Warren has given $9,600 since 2007 to Graham, who has a broad record of pro-business votes.

Kiawah’s owner, William H. Goodwin, founder of Va.-based CCA Industries, has given $314,000 to the GOP since 2007, including $5,000 to Lindsey in 2011.

Goodwin told TheDC that he is largely retired from the day-to-day business, and downplayed any links between the donations and Graham’s support of guest-workers.

“I don’t connect the dots — they’re totally exclusive,” he told The DC. Kiawah’s day-to-day business decisions are “above my pay grade,” Goodwin said, adding that he directly employs only one person. “The young lady sitting across from my desk, and she’s American,” he said.

Warren, the club’s manager, concurs with Graham’s claim that local workers are not interested in the club’s seasonal jobs, saying the H-2B program provides diligent seasonal workers and helps hold down payroll costs.

Americans aren’t taking the club’s seasonal jobs, Warren said, even when the state’s unemployment rate hit 12 percent, and even when he offered $12.00 an hour.

“If we thought that paying 20 percent or 30 percent more would provide us with the quality candidates we need to do this job, and it would be a good financial decision for us, we would do it,” Warren said.  He added that paying seasonal workers more would put upward pressure on wages for Kiawah’s 1,400 year-round workers, potentially requiring some layoffs in a highly competitive sector.

“That’s the kind of analysis that every business goes through, and to have people with other conflicting interests take a position that is more political-based than business-based … is frustrating because in practicality [a wage increase] doesn’t work,” he told TheDC.

“If we didn’t have the support of the foreign workers… we would have fewer restaurants, fewer services… which would mean we wouldn’t do as much business,” Warren said. “[The H-2B program] helps us to grow the opportunity for Americans to work at our facility — in my opinion, that is a win for everybody.”

Other experts on the South Carolina job market dispute this claim.

“We do staffing for the hospitality industry, and we have many many unemployed workers ….[yet] we’re importing workers to fill those spots,” said Bailey Bolen, the CEO of FoodStaff, a Charleston, S.C. staffing company. “it is absolutely stupid and unethical … we’re not giving Americans a chance to get those jobs,” he said.

Graham’s support for Kiawah’s H-2B visas is part of his decade-long support for a major increase in immigration.

Graham backed a failed immigration revamp in 2006 and kick-started the current 2013 controversy by calling one of the Senate’s top Democrats, N.Y. Sen. Chuck Schumer, to work on immigration reform shortly after the November election.

“My heart went pitter patter,” Schumer said at a January event hosted by Politico. “That meant we could get something done.”

Under the pending bill, now being drafted by Schumer, Graham and six other Senators, Congress could provide a practical amnesty to at least 11 million illegal immigrants.

The immigrants would get immediate work-permits and deferred citizenship, which would allow them to bring in their immediate families, and perhaps their siblings’ families and their elderly parents.

Graham’s bill would also increase the inflow of guest workers.

Graham has repeatedly said that guest-workers are a vital part of the immigration bill, a position shared by fellow “Gang of Eight” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“I’m not going to be a part of a bill that doesn’t create a process so people can come temporarily to work if we need them,” Rubio told Politico in March. “If we don’t have a system for foreign workers to come temporarily when we need them, we’re going to have an illegal immigration problem again.”

Graham’s support for guest-workers has won him much support from state and national business and media.

The support includes a pro-Graham TV funded by the D.C.-based group, Republicans for Immigration Reform, which showcased support from Bryan Derreberry, the CEO of the Camber of Commerce in Charleston, located just a few miles north of Kiawah’s golf course.

“Senator Graham is right on target in fighting for immigration reform today … he know for South Carolina to compete in the 21st century, we have to be able to update our immigration laws,” Derreberry says in the $60,000 TV-ad, which is funded by Republicans for Immigration Reform.

That national group is headed by Carlos Gutierrez, who served as President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary.

Graham is also getting support from the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group led by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, several Democratic politicians and the CEOs of several major companies.

On March 13, the group helped organize a pro-Graham immigration rally in Columbia, S.C.

Bloomberg has long been a vocal supporter of increased immigration. In 2006, for example, he told WABC-AM radio host that “you and I are beneficiaries of these jobs … You and I both play golf; who takes care of the greens and the fairways in your golf course?”

Graham’s immigration policy has also won him much media support.

A March 13 report in The State, a South Carolina newspaper, for example, cited or quoted 12 individuals or groups backing Graham, but did not name any of Graham’s opponents.

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