These Tea Partiers Aren’t Anti-Immigration. They Just Want to Close the Border.

Charles S. Clark
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Charles S. Clark
July 24, 2014, 6:18 a.m.

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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