A nation divided on immigration

In rural North Carolina, as in Congress, divisions are deep - and solutions elusive.

Hispanic workers, both legal and illegal, are settling into the land of hogs and pickles, and residents of North Carolina's coastal plain - and the US Congress - are as divided as the rest of the nation on how to think about it.

It began with cucumber farmers here journeying to Texas to bring back bus loads of Hispanic workers to keep local pickle factories in business. At first, the workers returned to Mexico and other Central American countries at the end of the season. Then, five or so years ago, something changed "overnight," says odd-jobber Robert Monk of Warsaw: They stayed.

In towns like Warsaw, Calypso, Faison, and Mt. Olive, cucumber fields and chicken coops as long as football fields became a draw for more immigrants. They moved from shacks in the woods to trailer parks and worn-down ranch houses, where they parked new-looking old cars on the grass.

Business groups say they do jobs that whites and blacks long ago ceased to do. But Ralph Draughn, owner of the Super Clean Car Wash, feels cheated. Not only have American companies transferred many jobs south of the border, but hard-working Americans have to pony up tax dollars for public health clinics and new schools used by illegal immigrants, he says. "Soon, we'll all have to start swimming to Mexico, since that's where we've seen all the good jobs go, while the Mexicans take all the jobs here," says Mr. Draughn. His solution: Round up all illegal immigrants and deport them.

More than half of Americans apparently agree with him. Fifty-three percent say those who are in the US illegally should be required to go home, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Forty percent say they should be given some kind of legal status to stay in the US. But in the same survey, nearly half of those who say illegal immigrants should leave also say that some could stay under a temporary work program.

"It's a complicated issue, and the public's views aren't consistent," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center.

Since the 1990s, the public's views of Latin American and Asian immigrants have become more positive, despite concerns over the drawbacks of immigration. Both groups are seen as hard-working and committed to family.

"The fault line here is education and income," she says. "People who are financially struggling - regardless of political party - are more likely to say that immigrants threaten traditional values." Sixteen percent of those Pew surveyed said they or a family member had lost a job to an immigrant worker.

Immigration legislation now before Congress is pulling much of this ambivalence into the open. In a historic vote as early as Thursday, senators take up a plan that includes opening a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million in the US illegally.

Opponents of illegal immigration say they're also seeing a surge in support, especially after witnessing protesters carrying Mexican flags in US cities. "The first day the Senate Judiciary Committee met [to mark up their bill on immigration reform], we had 4,000 new members in a single day," says Carolina Espinosa of Numbers USA, an immigration-reduction group that claims 150,000 supporters.

The quiet backlash against these demonstrations is shifting momentum away from any form of "earned" amnesty, says Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R) of Colorado, who led the drive in the House of Representatives against granting legal status to those already here illegally. "As I speak around the country, I'm hearing: 'Let's enforce the law,' " he says.

In contrast to the debate during the 1986 reforms, the focus this year is jobs, not culture. Those who do not want to grant illegals any legitimate status are talking less about English-speaking and more about prospects for low-wage Americans. "This time, Americans are much more concerned about their jobs," says Representative Tancredo.

As a result of the 1986 law, 3.1 million illegals became legal residents, but the illegal population continued to rise. By 1995, the number was 4 million and is at 11 million to 12 million today. In North Carolina, an area where Hispanic newcomers are flocking, there are now about 400,000 illegal immigrants, up from 25,000 in 1990.

Sitting back in a lawn chair inside his son-in-law's work equipment supply business in nearby Calypso, N.C., Cecil Langley can't see a simple solution.

On the one hand, Mr. Langley, a retired town employee, ticks off new problems the immigrants bring: In nearby Wayne County, an illegal immigrant was in court Tuesday for running a red light and hitting two boys outside an elementary school, injuring both seriously; and last week here in Duplin County, sheriff's deputies busted a $1 million drug smuggling ring they allege was run by Hispanics.

On the other hand, he sees a hard-working community trying to escape poverty. "It's hard to put your finger on it," he says. "We're not against Hispanics, but simply frustrated with how the government has dealt with them."

Over at Warsaw Meats, proprietor Rodney Best has a simple motto: "I try to bring all three cultures together." Why? It's good for business here in "pork country."

In the past two years, Mr. Best has added to his meat case items like beef tongue and stomach - for the popular Mexican menudo soup. He hired a Mexican woman, here legally, to help in the store. He says it paid off in more business - and his new employee helps explain the different ways Hispanics like their meat sliced. "Some people are up in arms about illegal immigration and some people aren't," says Best. "I don't have any problem with it."

He continues: "There's good and bad in all cultures, and the Hispanic culture is no different. But who I see are mostly legal; they're hard-working people; they pay taxes; and they come in the store and they are friendly. The fact is, they've really helped my business."

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