National Journal recently visited Greenville and Spartanburg to explore the changes happening in upstate South Carolina. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are shaping this conversation.
SPARTANBURG, S.C.—The crisis along the Mexico-United States border is raising alarm more than 1,300 miles away in upstate South Carolina. Members of the Spartanburg Tea Party watch the news closely, wondering what the influx of immigrant children could mean for their state. They don’t want any more undocumented immigrants moving here.
“We’ve got to educate them, we’ve got to feed them, we’ve got to take care of them,” says Bill Conley, a high school sociology teacher, at the tea party’s monthly meeting in Spartanburg. “It just overwhelms the system.”
Conley, 44, says he sees the impact of illegal immigration at the school where he works in nearby Cherokee County. The rural area is known as South Carolina’s “Peach Capital” because of the large number of orchards there, which rely on migrants to harvest the fields. The children of these workers from Mexico and Central America attend nearby schools, and some end up in Conley’s classes. He said they struggle with the language and the material, and extra teachers have to come in and help them.
“It’s very hard to incorporate them into the class,” he says. “They’re not really sure what’s going on, they don’t really understand the language.”
The federal government has enough buses to pick up unaccompanied children at the border, Conley says, so they can bus undocumented immigrants back out. If anything, Congress needs to think about simplifying the process to enter the United States legally, he says.
Not all his fellow tea partiers share this view. Karen Martin, 56, who founded the Spartanburg Tea Party, says she’s open to the idea of offering legal status to some undocumented immigrants if they pay back taxes and serve in the military. One thing Martin and the rest agree on is this: No reform until the border is closed.
“Right now, the border is pretty much nonexistent,” says Martin, who works as a freelance editor for a trade-management company. She says she didn’t care about politics until the housing crash crippled the economy several years ago. It enraged her to see the federal government use tax money to bail out the corporations that caused the meltdown. She worried that her country was headed down the wrong path, she says, so she created the local tea-party group in 2010. At first, it was just a website with information about political candidates who shared her views on the need to limit public spending and shrink government. Six months later, Martin began holding meetings at a local library.
Now the group has about 660 members, and several dozen of them meet each month at the Super Clock Restaurant in East Spartanburg. They eat burgers and drink sweet tea, opening each meeting with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. They usually focus on state and local issues, such as whether the county should allow liquor sales on Sundays.
It’s not a racially diverse group—everyone at the July meeting was white. But the members do represent several generations and socioeconomic backgrounds: engineers, a college student, a tire salesman. All are fighting to make South Carolina more conservative. It’s an uphill battle, says Martin, because Republicans here are too moderate. “South Carolina is not conservative,” she says. “It’s just a facade.”
Martin and her colleagues are still reeling from the tea party’s recent failure to replace Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., with a conservative Republican who won’t compromise on issues such as immigration reform. They also think that local evangelical pastors pushing for “amnesty” are misinterpreting the Bible for political purposes.
“The [Bible] says, give what belongs to Caesar, to Caesar, and what belongs to God, to God. So it’s telling us to follow the law,” says Thomas Dimsdale, a 23-year-old tire sales manager and active tea-party member. Dimsdale says he didn’t interact with many immigrants growing up in Spartanburg, but he welcomes legal immigration and thinks it benefits the community. He works with a Filipino man and sees how similar their cultures are. They believe in strong families and low taxes, and many are evangelical Christians, he says.
“I’d love to invite them into the tea party,” Dimsdale says. “If not, then at least to the Republican Party, because there’s a lot of common ground that they don’t realize we have, and I hope we can see it too.”
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