The presidential campaign has changed South Carolina Hispanics’ lives – regardless of their immigration status.
In interviews this past week with 25 Hispanics in South Carolina, some of them registered voters and some of them in the U.S. illegally, they expressed fear that the immigration rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has put a bull’s-eye on their backs and imperiled their futures.
A 12-year-old doesn’t understand if it’s just rhetoric. They really believe their parents could be taken from their homes and deported overnight.
Julie Smithwick, executive director of PASOs
“It doesn’t matter if Trump doesn’t win. The damage has already been done,” said Ilia Rivera of Greenville, South Carolina, who chairs the Hispanic Caucus of the state’s Democratic Party. “He replanted that seed of racial discrimination in some South Carolinians here that after years of working together in the community was so close to being gone.”
Those eligible to vote – 34 percent of South Carolina’s Hispanic population of 258,000 – have been apathetic about registering, said Wilfredo Leon of Greenville, who started South Carolina’s first Spanish-language newspaper in 1996. Trump’s campaign has changed that.
As a growing minority at 5 percent of the state’s population, any surge in anti-Trump registration or voting is unlikely to sway the overall vote for South Carolina, which has for decades voted solidly Republican in the presidential election.
“I’m sensing a fear, a new anxiety, about what is going to happen if Trump is elected,” said Leon. “I sense a nervousness provoked by how people around them are reacting to the ideas that Trump is pushing. . . . Some react by distancing themselves. Others react saying, ‘If I can become a citizen more quickly to register to vote, I’m going to do it.’ ”
88,000 Hispanic eligible voters in South Carolina in 2016, according to Pew Research Center.
Leon placed the usual election-year ad in his newspaper offering to help readers with voter registration, but this time the response was overwhelming. He said he’d helped 25 to 30 people register, most of whom were driven by fear of living under a President Trump.
“Many people won’t usually be very aware of the politics going on, and often think ‘I don’t think I’m going to vote’ or ‘Our votes don’t count,’ ” said Maribel Luna Sanchez, 23, who moved with her family from Mexico to Beaufort County when she was 8. “Now there is that connection of thinking, ‘OK, I don’t want Trump to be president,’ and that’s definitely a motivation.”
Rivera said that after Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona on Wednesday she’d posted a Facebook ad for a workshop for new voters in her area called,“How not to vote for Trump.” There was an immediate flood of responses.
Earlier in his campaign, Trump painted a bleak picture of dangerous, violent “illegals” flowing over the southern border, bringing drugs and crime and often harming innocent Americans. At his Wednesday immigration speech in Arizona, 22 people gave accounts of being victimized by immigrants.
Living in a state that adopted parts of Arizona’s strict immigration law, many Hispanics interviewed said that characterization had resulted in increased suspicion of them. South Carolina has had the second-fastest-growing Hispanic population in the country: From 2000 to 2011 the number surged 154 percent.
It’s a minority, but always the minority who is the most boisterous. who is creating this atmosphere of fear.
Eric Esquivel in Hilton Head, S.C.
“Of course, this rhetoric, these type of statements, like ‘Mexicans are rapists and criminals,’ it hurts all of us,” said Myriam Torres, the director of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “And often I hear the comment, ‘Oh, that’s not us. We’re not undocumented; they’re not talking about us.’ ”
But the suspicion and profiling can affect anyone who looks Hispanic or has a Spanish last name, said Eric Esquivel, a Hilton Head businessman who runs La Isla magazine and is the co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition.
“It’s just adding a negative mentality towards Latinos – toward tan, thinking that all tan people are ‘Mexican’ and ‘illegal.’ For (people in) government, what they say and what they do is delicate,” said Esquivel. “What is the message you’re sending to next generations?”
In 2011, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill similar to Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation. Opponents said it would cost South Carolina taxpayers millions of dollars while encouraging racial profiling. It required police to check the immigration status of any person they stopped and suspected of being in the country illegally. It also set up the country’s first state-level immigration enforcement unit, at a cost of $1.3 million.
A federal court blocked major parts of the law after South Carolina was sued by a group of organizations, including the National Immigrant Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Esquivel, who while growing up in Hilton Head was often the only Hispanic kid in class, said the combination of those laws and the political rhetoric had created an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Though he is a registered Republican, he said it was difficult to vote for the party.
“This is creating a ripple effect of hate and suspicion and antagonism toward all Hispanics,” he said.
Some community organizations are talking about what support to provide the Hispanic community if Trump wins, including mental health services for children.
“They are really under a lot of stress and trauma right now in our state,” said Julie Smithwick, the executive director of PASOs, a program that works to connect Latinos to health and social services. “A 12-year-old doesn’t understand if it’s just rhetoric. They really believe their parents could be taken from their homes and deported overnight.”
Steven Diaz, a retired Marine veteran who runs a Columbia nonprofit to help veterans re-enter civilian life, said the majority of Hispanic immigrants who worked hard to build lives in South Carolina didn’t want to encourage illegal immigration, either. But it’s a fantasy to believe that Trump will empty the country of workers who are here illegally, he said.
“So for people to get excited about deporting all these people, good luck,” he said.
Diaz worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign in the GOP presidential primary. Diaz will still vote Republican. As a conservative who thinks President Barack Obama’s administration failed on important veterans’ issues, he finds Trump the only option. He does wish Trump would moderate on immigration.
“I was hoping that reality would set in and they’d know you couldn’t be that extreme about this,” he said. “I don’t believe in amnesty, but you have to have some kind of immigration platform and it can’t just be ‘we’re kicking everybody out.’ ”