In a Georgia town, nine people explain their frustration and optimism on immigration

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Republican candidates across the country have embraced President Trump’s hard-line views on immigration in this year’s midterm elections, talking about keeping out illegal immigrants and raising fears of gang-related crime. But in this city in northern Georgia, the issue often feels more complicated, more immediate and more personal.

Gainesville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, has long been a destination for immigrants seeking work at poultry processing plants, construction sites and factories. More than 40 percent of the city’s 40,000 residents are Hispanic, and one in four was born in another country, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. Some of the immigrants who call Gainesville home are in the country illegally.

The city is also a conservative bastion. It is located in a county where President Trump won 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is from Gainesville and competing in a primary runoff for governor July 24, tweeted that Democrats want to “protect CRIMINAL ILLEGAL ALIENS rights over law-abiding Georgians.” His opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, brags in an ad that he drives “a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.”

As part of the “Of America” series, The Washington Post traveled to Gainesville and asked dozens of locals how they would change the nation’s immigration system if they could.

“They’re a part of our culture, they’re a part of our country — we need to get over it.”

When DeWayne Loggins says the United States has not enforced its immigration laws — and that’s not the fault of undocumented immigrants.

“I guess they’re still illegal, but we have allowed it so long, they should be grandfathered in,” said Loggins, 63, a retired engineer who doesn’t identify with either political party but voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “These people have established lives, they’re a part of our culture, they’re a part of our country — we need to get over it.”

President Trump’s strategy of demonizing undocumented immigrants to win votes angers him.

“Immigrants aren’t a major part of crime. They have the lowest crime of any group,” Loggins said, after lunch at the Longstreet Cafe, a popular local restaurant named for a Confederate general. “If you want to get rid of crime, get rid of the white guy, white men.”

It was at that point that Joel Williams — the host of a local conservative morning radio show who was finishing a cup of soup nearby — felt the need to say something.

“You can’t seriously sit there and say that,” said Williams, 57.

“I can,” Loggins said, alluding to studies like those from the libertarian Cato Institute that concluded that illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans, although conservatives have challenged such conclusions.

The two then began to debate immigration policy, sometimes taking a break to commend one another for being so civil in doing so.

The talk-show host argued that taxpayers have had to finance government programs that benefit immigrants who are here illegally, while Loggins insisted that many of them are paying taxes and contributing to the economy, not taxing it.

Williams kept telling Loggins that if he just learned a little bit about the president’s proposal to build a wall on the southern border and allow hundreds of thousands of young people who came to the United States illegally as children to legally stay, he would actually agree with it.

“We’re going to get you on this Trump train,” Williams said.

Loggins shook his head and said: “No.”

“To me it’s a shock when people say I’m a new American.”

Maria Palacios, a 28-year-old single mother of three, worries about what politicians say about undocumented immigrants.

“When you have mixed-status homes, people are less likely to report crimes if they think that the sentiment is: deport them all,” Palacios said. “Rhetoric like that has serious consequences for people.”

Palacios wants state lawmakers to stop spreading fear of immigrants ahead of elections and stop introducing legislation that she calls “anti-immigrant.” And she wants the federal government to create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally but have been contributing to their communities.

Palacios’s parents moved to the United States legally as migrant farmworkers, but they briefly returned to their home town in Mexico for her birth. Palacios has lived in the Gainesville area since she was 5 years old and learned English before she learned Spanish. She graduated from the local public school system, where she fell in love with politics, and is now the president of the PTA at her 6-year-old daughter’s school. After years of being a permanent resident, Palacios became a U.S. citizen last year.

Palacios works as a policy analyst for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and decided to run as a Democrat for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives to bring the voice of Gainesville Latinos to the statehouse. Despite the city’s diversity, nearly all elected positions in the area are held by whites.

In May, she was disqualified by Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state who is running for governor.

Kemp explained in a legal decision that the Georgia Constitution requires candidates to be “citizens of this state for at least two years” and that it is “necessary to be a U.S. citizen in order to be a ‘citizen of this state.’”

“To me, it’s a shock when people say I’m a new American,” said Palacios, who has challenged the decision and is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “In Gainesville, everyone’s known me forever. . . . To my community, it’s like: ‘Why? You didn’t just come here. We’ve known you forever.’”

“I feel like the minority.”

Longstreet Cafe — which regulars say has the best fried chicken in northern Georgia — closes down at around 2 p.m. each afternoon, then reopens for dinner. As a handful of Hispanic workers wearing T-shirts listing the Ten Commandments mopped the floor, a few locals lingered, including Susan Henthorn and her next-door neighbor.

“I’m sick of it,” Henthorn, 61, said of immigrants illegally coming to her community, where she has lived for 30 years.

Henthorn said she has a friend who traveled to Mexico and says she saw a sign near the border that states: “Need work? Call Gainesville, Georgia.” She’s angered that the school system is spending tax dollars to buy books in English and Spanish. She accused Hispanic women of being too aggressive with their carts while shopping at Walmart.

“You get tired of it,” said Henthorn, a retired cardiology scrub nurse. “You. Get. Tired. Of. It. I feel like the minority.”

“They’re not stealing anybody’s jobs. Nobody wants to work in the chicken plants.”

Diego Covarrubias’s parents came to the United States from Mexico illegally but received their papers through an amnesty program during the Ronald Reagan administration. That allowed his dad to work for more than 20 years in Chicago and move in 2001 to Gainesville, where he used his life savings to start a grocery store that his children still run.

Covarrubias, who was born in the United States, has relatives who are documented and undocumented. He thinks Congress should provide another wave of amnesty.

“We come here for the opportunity, man. So another amnesty? Yeah. Leave people alone, give them a license, let them go to work and come back,” said Covarrubias, 33, as he worked one morning in his family’s store, Carniceria Tapatia, which is known for its butchered meats. “And on the way there, they’re going to buy a house, they’re going to buy a car, and they’re going to invest their money here.”

Covarrubias’s wife is from Mexico and legally came to the United States when she was 14. The couple first met in high school and now live in nearby Flowery Branch, sending their two children to a bilingual school.

“Her dad brought her the right way, but do you know how much that took? It took 14 years of her dad being here and them being there. She didn’t have a dad growing up, so that’s what it cost,” said Covarrubias, who regularly votes for Democrats. “These people, they just don’t know what people go through.”

Covarrubias gets frustrated when he hears people say that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. Many of the undocumented immigrants he knows apply for tax identification numbers so they can file returns. And everyone pays sales tax at stores, he said.

“Do you know how much I pay in taxes a month? Over $10,000 a month in sales tax,” he said. “Who do you think my clients are? Illegal and legal immigrants.”

Gainesville couldn’t exist without undocumented immigrants, he said, as they are the ones who work the jobs that no one else wants, especially those at the poultry plants.

“They’re not stealing anybody’s jobs. Nobody wants to work in the chicken plants,” he said. “And they go every day to work. Every day to work.”

“It’s just not the kind of society that we want to live in.”

Rose Johnson grew up in Newtown, an African American neighborhood constructed on top of a landfill in an industrial area, and has spent most of her life fighting for the rights of African Americans in Gainesville. She now sees similar discrimination against Latinos.

“I think back on all that we have endured here in the city of Gainesville, there have been many times when we have encountered people who thought similar things about African Americans or blacks being here, going to the same school, working in the same companies and so it’s not that far removed from our experience,” said Johnson, 64, who’s the executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights activist group.

For the past two decades, black and Hispanic activists have partnered together to call for more affordable housing, workplace protections, a voice in local decision-making and fair treatment by the police, along with confronting extremist views.

Like many of her neighbors, Johnson also wants to see a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. She wants the government to acknowledge the painful aftermath of deportations and for federal officials to “use your discretion to exercise compassion, without violating the law.” She said the companies that entice immigrants to move to Gainesville should take better care of their employees.

“You have more of an obligation to do more of whatever it is within your power to make sure that they are safe,” Johnson said. “They have resources and they have lawyers and they can do more, and they should do more . . . And then when there’s a raid, people are just carted off like animals, and it’s just not the kind of society that we want to live in.”

“I know that I don’t like it.”

Kinsey Lee just graduated from Hall County’s Johnson High School, Cagle’s alma mater, where more than 70 percent of students are minorities.

Trump’s ascension to the White House prompted frank, emotional and deeply personal conversations at school about how the policies that Trump proposed would change the lives of people she knew and cared about.

“As someone who knows immigrants: They are not bad people. They contribute to our economy. They are people who are hard-working and care,” said Lee, who graduated last week and plans to attend Western Carolina University in the fall to study political science in hopes of one day becoming an attorney for the ACLU.

Since Trump’s election, Lee has become politically active, attending a Women’s March in Atlanta in January 2017 and organizing a walkout at her school to protest gun violence and call for common-sense gun-control measures. Lee describes herself as “liberal minded” and voted for the first time in May.

Lee is not sure what the federal government should do to fix the immigration system — but casting immigrants as criminals, splitting up families and deporting undocumented residents who are good people is not the answer, she said.

“All of my friends — even the ones who aren’t immigrants, the white friends — we’re all against it, because we just have so many close people with us who are immigrants,” Lee said. “It’s a sticky situation, very difficult to grasp, especially at 18, but I know that I don’t like it. I don’t like all of the things that the Republicans are doing.”

“There are rules and laws that people have to abide by.”

Art Gallegos Jr. says that when his parents came to the United States from Mexico, they followed the rules and immigrated legally.

“There’s a process for everything and a law-and-order for anywhere you go, any country where you go,” said Gallegos, 44, an evangelist and community organizer who is active with the local GOP and plans to soon run for the city council. “You have the opportunity to be a part of this nation if you do things the right way.”

He added that Congress needs to reform the immigration system and he would support establishing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who have been here for many years. He also supports President Trump’s plan for constructing a wall along the southern border, saying that many people misunderstand the rationale for the wall.

“A wall could be looked at as something that’s going to prevent you from getting somewhere — or it’s going to protect you from danger, from threats,” said Gallegos, who helped found the city’s Latinos Conservative Organization last year. “It has never been to deter people from reaching the dream.”

“It’s more complicated than, ‘We’re going to get rid of all of the criminals.’ ”

Longstreet Cafe’s general manager, Bobby Peck, said that Americans have become too quick to label one another. He’s dismayed at how hard-working Hispanic immigrants have been unfairly cast as dangerous criminals — and how even guys like him get inaccurately labeled.

“I’m automatically a sexist, racist, homophobic or whatever because I’m a white male southerner,” said Peck, 68, who has worked at Longstreet for 21 years. “Instead of getting to know each other as people, as individuals, we’re just lumping everybody together and saying: This group is this. This group is that.”

Peck considers himself a moderate conservative — he wrote in Ben Carson for president — and he thinks that those in the country illegally should be given citizenship. (All of his employees have the paperwork needed to legally work at Longstreet, he noted.) He doesn’t know how the laws should be changed, but he can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet.

“I’m not smart enough to know the road to take, to be honest. And, you know, what scares me is that I don’t know if the people in leadership do either,” Peck said. “Most people realize that it is complicated. It’s a lot more complicated than saying, you know, ‘We’re going to build a wall’ and ‘We’re going to stop it.’ It’s more complicated than, ‘We’re going to get rid of all of the criminals.’ . . . And it must be tough for politicians to come up with a plan. I mean, nobody’s come up with a great one yet.”

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