Immigration through S.C. voters’ eyes

Times Staff Writer

Tiffany Pearson carries the grisly photo in a little pink bag with her other essential stuff, like her favorite Rod Stewart CD.

The photo shows a calf carcass rotting on the roof of a trailer home. Pearson, 42, a clerk in a gift shop, said Latino immigrants put the calf up there.

She said she planned to vote for a Republican candidate who would do something about illegal immigration. Among other things, she said, the newcomers are bringing down the quality of life in her country town.

“It’s going to play a big part in who I vote for,” she said.


Just down Main Street, Wesley Smith carries a couple of numbers around in his head -- numbers that have buoyed his used-car and mechanic shop since the closure of three nearby textile mills in the last three years.

Today, Smith sells 25% of his used cars to the Latino immigrants who have flocked to Saluda County to work on its peach farms and in its poultry plants. A third of his repair work is for Latino customers.

“Immigration is a concern of mine, but it’s not as big for me as it is for some people around here,” said Smith, who added that if he voted Republican, it would probably be for Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “They’ve helped my livelihood.”

South Carolina has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the nation, and illegal immigration is one of the hottest topics -- along with concerns about the economy and the Iraq war -- among likely voters in the state’s Republican primary Saturday.

In Saluda County, a collection of farming and bedroom communities an hour’s drive west of the state capital, Columbia, recent history has been defined in equal measure by economic stagnation and the influx of immigrants.

More than 1,400 people lost their jobs in the textile plant closures, said Kim Westbury, the county’s former planning and economic development director. At the same time, the county has absorbed the largest ratio of Latinos in the state.

Some conservative businesspeople are worried about immigration in theory, but that concern is often attenuated by the immigrants’ cheap labor or retail spending. Other likely Republican voters, such as Pearson, see immigrants as nothing more than a burden.

On a recent afternoon, Pearson and a co-worker, Kayla Goldman, described the shantytown trailers that have sprung up to house illegal workers, and the farm animals some immigrants keep in small makeshift pens. They said the Latinos sometimes slaughtered the animals in plain sight, under conditions that seemed unhygienic.

Pearson walked outside of the store to show how immigration had radically altered the flavor of Saluda, the county seat of about 3,000 people.

She pointed down Main Street to the Spanish-language sign for Joyeria Santos, which offered perfume, clothes and religious items for sale, and El Marinero, a little store. The storefront church she once attended is now called the Iglesia Apostolica de la Fe en Cristo Jesus.

Around the corner, the Taqueria y Panaderia Guanajuato faced off with Saluda’s grand old columned courthouse, where, coincidentally, a granite marker commemorated native sons William Barrett Travis and James B. Bonham, who died defending the Alamo from the Mexican army.

Pearson said she was neither a racist nor a xenophobe. She is married to a black man, she said, and when the Air Force shipped him off to Turkey, she went with him and savored the adventure.

It is not the Latino businesses that bother her, she said, but the illegal immigrants who patronize them. She feared that the new arrivals were saddling taxpayers in Saluda County, population 19,000, with a host of unfair costs.

“When people tell me it’s cheap labor, well, how is it cheap when you have to pay for their healthcare and for educating their children?” she said.

Pearson said she wasn’t sure which candidate would get her vote. She said she had favored anti-immigration crusader Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado until he bowed out of the Republican race last month.

Also undecided is Pearson’s boss, Marti Coleman Adams, the founder of a local anti-illegal-immigrant group, Save Our Saluda. Adams, 52, is a fiery advocate for immigration reform. Her gift store -- packed with tasteful home furnishings -- sports a large banner of an American eagle on the front door. A poster behind the counter reads, “This Is America -- Please Speak English.”

She is not fond of McCain, who supported a bill backed by President Bush that would have given some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Of the remaining Republican candidates, she’s most interested in former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who wants to step up enforcement of existing immigration laws, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who proposes ending birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

Whichever man she chooses, she said, she will look most closely at his immigration record.

“We can stay in Iraq and stay in Afghanistan,” she said. “But I’d say that if the problem of illegal immigration is not addressed, then we’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Adams is also a cattle rancher, and she refuses to hire illegal immigrants. She is livid that farmers, business owners and landlords are benefiting from illegal immigration.

She was a big supporter of a recent moratorium the County Council passed limiting the number of used trailers after word spread that a local poultry company was planning an expansion. (T. Hardee Horne, the council chairman, said the county was buying time to strengthen its ordinances so that future homes for immigrants would be more livable.)

Farther down Main Street, Joe Shealy, 77, said that his auto parts and convenience store, Tire & Oil Co., had a large number of Latino customers. He said he would like to see immigration better “controlled.” He and his wife said they were leaning toward voting for McCain.

Mike Deloache, a downtown real estate broker, said that like many business owners in town, he counted Latinos among his new clients.

Deloache, who keeps a photo of President Reagan on a filing cabinet in his office, has been following the Republican candidates’ positions on the matter. He has yet to choose a candidate, but he said he was most impressed with the honesty of McCain and the business skills of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Romney, a critic of the failed immigration bill that McCain supported, has said he would tell the nation’s illegal immigrants to “go home.” Deloache said he was pretty sure that the solution to the problem wouldn’t be that easy.

“The undocumented population has become fairly embedded, not just in Saluda, but in an awful lot of communities,” he said. " . . . That’s sort of like closing the gate after the horse is already out of the barn.”