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What Trump Doesn’t Know About Southern Conservatives and Immigration

There’s a long, complex story of conservatives’ relationships with Latino immigrants.

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Julie M. Weise
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JULIE M. WEISE
Aug. 7, 2015, 6:30 a.m.

Last night’s Re­pub­lic­an de­bate show­cased the GOP’s pre­dict­able im­mig­ra­tion di­vide: The audi­ence cheered when Don­ald Trump de­fen­ded his earli­er pro­voc­at­ive rants, seem­ingly con­firm­ing the Re­pub­lic­an base’s anti-im­mig­rant sen­ti­ments. Mean­while, Jeb Bush re­it­er­ated his sup­port for leg­al­iz­a­tion while throw­ing a bone to the Right in the form of a com­mit­ment to bor­der se­cur­ity.

Lead­ing up to the de­bate, Trump got the most at­ten­tion. Mul­tiple polls show that Re­pub­lic­an primary voters op­pose a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants even as Bush sup­ports one.

But tele­phone polls, tea-party act­iv­ists, and Trump’s rants ob­scure the longer and more com­plex story of Re­pub­lic­an voters’ re­la­tion­ships with Latino im­mig­rants.

In over 10 years of re­search­ing Mex­ic­an mi­gra­tion to the U.S. South, I have learned that a slice of the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate — rur­al South­ern Re­pub­lic­ans — has cau­tiously and quietly em­braced Latino im­mig­ra­tion over the past four dec­ades, al­beit on their own terms.

Last night, Bush stood by his earli­er in­sist­ence that il­leg­al bor­der-cross­ing was not a felony but an “act of love” to­ward one’s chil­dren. Yet what most con­sidered a polit­ic­al gaffe ac­tu­ally re­flects the sen­ti­ments of a sig­ni­fic­ant group of Re­pub­lic­an base voters: White grow­ers, work­ing-class Whites, and middle-class people in the rur­al South’s tra­di­tion­al ag­ri­cul­tur­al areas.

Latino im­mig­rants have been com­ing to the rur­al South in small num­bers since the 1910s and have dom­in­ated the ag­ri­cul­tur­al labor force there since the 1980s. From the early 20th cen­tury through the 1960s, they mostly picked cot­ton along­side poor Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and White laborers. But since the post­war eco­nom­ic ex­pan­sion and civil rights move­ment cre­ated new op­por­tun­it­ies for White and Black work­ers, Lati­nos have be­come the main source of labor for all of South­ern ag­ri­cul­ture.

Work­ing-class Whites have not com­peted with im­mig­rants for ag­ri­cul­tur­al jobs in dec­ades and, thus, are re­cept­ive to grow­ers’ pro­nounce­ments that Latino im­mig­rants “saved” en­tire loc­al eco­nom­ies.

Ar­riv­ing to ra­cially di­vided com­munit­ies in the wake of the civil rights move­ment, Lati­nos were ini­tially met with sus­pi­cion and ex­clu­sion. But over time, that sus­pi­cion gave way to ac­cept­ance as ag­ri­cul­tur­al and evan­gel­ic­al com­munity lead­ers suc­cess­fully used their loc­al clout to frame the is­sue for rur­al White people from across the eco­nom­ic spec­trum.

Work­ing-class Whites have not com­peted with im­mig­rants for ag­ri­cul­tur­al jobs in dec­ades, and thus are re­cept­ive to grow­ers’ pro­nounce­ments that Latino im­mig­rants “saved” en­tire loc­al eco­nom­ies. Dur­ing the time I spent con­duct­ing re­search in South­ern Geor­gia, I heard stor­ies of anti-Latino in­cid­ents but ob­served that, over­all, loc­als sup­por­ted their pres­ence in town. When I tell this to blue-state lib­er­als, they find it sur­pris­ing, be­cause it con­tra­dicts their ste­reo­types about the rur­al South. But upon re­flec­tion, it makes sense, con­sid­er­ing who the key play­ers are in rur­al South­ern com­munit­ies.

White evan­gel­ic­als, who have dom­in­ated civic cul­ture in the rur­al South, play an im­port­ant role in the gen­er­al­ized ac­cept­ance of Latino im­mig­rants.

They heard echoes of their own im­mig­ra­tion dis­cus­sions in Bush’s lan­guage of “love.” For them, Lat­in Amer­ica was not a far-off scary haven of drugs and dis­ease. It was the place they ven­tured to build houses as mis­sion­ar­ies. Many re­turned ex­cited to pur­sue char­ity and evan­gel­iz­a­tion with the Lat­in Amer­ic­ans liv­ing closer to home. One such man I in­ter­viewed, Sonny B., spor­ted a “No to the Obama agenda” bump­er stick­er. But when I asked him about his views on un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants he told me: “I’ve got no prob­lem with them. They ac­cept me, and I ac­cept them.”

For rur­al White con­ser­vat­ives like Sonny, Latino im­mig­rants were not a threat to the fu­ture of White Amer­ica. In­stead, they be­came an op­por­tun­ity for its re­demp­tion: a chance to cul­tiv­ate cos­mo­pol­it­an­ism and “tol­er­ance” in a re­gion shamed by its res­ist­ance to equal­ity for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. Re­con­cili­ation with loc­al Black com­munit­ies has been fraught with pit­falls, while char­ity pro­jects in Mex­ic­an mi­grant camps have be­come in­creas­ingly at­tract­ive. For ex­ample, an over­whelm­ingly White Chris­ti­an private school in Peach County, Geor­gia, eagerly ini­ti­ated East­er Egg hunts and oth­er char­ity pro­jects in Mex­ic­an mi­grant camps rather than in the area’s much-lar­ger Black com­munit­ies.

In these deeply red com­munit­ies, im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment has not been a wel­come op­por­tun­ity to purge un­wanted dead­beats but, rather, an­oth­er in­tru­sion of a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that would do bet­ter to mind its own busi­ness. In 2011, small-town Re­pub­lic­an May­or Paul Bridges of Uvalda, Geor­gia, joined the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on to chal­lenge an en­force­ment-heavy state im­mig­ra­tion law in court. In 2012, a dis­gruntled neigh­bor form­ally ac­cused Vid­alia, a south­ern Geor­gia com­munity that voted two-to-one for Mitt Rom­ney, of be­ing a “sanc­tu­ary city” for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

As Latino im­mig­rants have in­creas­ingly made their homes not just in places like south Flor­ida but also in re­mote corners of the United States, Bush’s per­son­al con­nec­tion to Latino im­mig­rants is more com­mon than polls and red-state ste­reo­types sug­gest. Up­per-middle-class tea-party sub­urb­an­ites will cer­tainly de­cry Bush’s stance while elite pun­dits will urge him to tout im­mig­ra­tion’s eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits and “leave love out of it.”

While the hos­tile na­tion­al cli­mate of the last sev­er­al years has cer­tainly made in­roads in­to South­ern ag­ri­cul­tur­al com­munit­ies, Bush and his fel­low can­did­ates can rest as­sured that a more open at­ti­tude to­ward Latino im­mig­ra­tion can res­on­ate with primary voters in some deeply con­ser­vat­ive corners of Re­pub­lic­an Amer­ica.

Ju­lie M. Weise is as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of his­tory at the Uni­versity of Ore­gon and au­thor of Corazón de Dixie: Mex­icanos in the U.S. South since 1910.

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