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CAMPAIGN '08: MAKING DECISIONS

Immigration through S.C. voters' eyes

In small-town Saluda, residents' views on Latino newcomers can determine whom they support for president.

January 18, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

SALUDA, S.C. — 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.

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