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A Look At Immigration From A Virginia Town With A Fast-Growing Hispanic Population


Immigration is near the top of the list of issues Americans find the most worrying. That's according to a recent poll conducted for NPR by Ipsos. Views on immigration diverge sharply depending on people's party affiliation, where in the country they live and whether they know people born outside the United States. Over the past few days, we've explored some of what we learned from that poll. And today we go to rural southwestern Virginia. NPR's Melissa Block talked with people in the small town of Galax, which has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the state.

TROY BARKLEY: Now, today we're going to do some dribbling stuff for a little while.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Soccer camp for young kids in Galax is bilingual.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: About 7,000 people live in this town set in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains close by the North Carolina border. In the schools now, almost a third of the students are Hispanic. Another benchmark of change - of the 11 starters on the high school boys' soccer team, all but one are Hispanic. And they've been doing really well.

BARKLEY: Yes, ma'am. Yeah, they're pretty successful.

BLOCK: What does pretty successful mean?

BARKLEY: We've won four state championships in the last five years.

BLOCK: Troy Barkley is head soccer coach at Galax High School. And he takes a liberal view of immigration whether people have entered illegally or not.

BARKLEY: Whether they're coming for a better life or they're coming to escape something in their home country, I don't know how all of a sudden you can just - you can shut that off. I mean, that's kind of what the American dream's all about. So I think it's a good thing. Puts a lot of diversity in the community, makes it a real neat place to leave.

BLOCK: That view doesn't mesh with many in southwest Virginia. This part of Appalachia is solidly red. Nearly 80 percent of people in these counties voted for Trump, so the president's tough rhetoric on immigration and his zero tolerance policies at the border have strong appeal here. Nationwide, our NPR/Ipsos survey shows a sharp partisan split. For example, more than half of Republicans support separating families who cross the border illegally as a deterrent. Just 11 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents support that.

ELIZABETH STRINGER: When I was growing up, Galax was very white, a very traditional small-town mountain community.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Stringer has taught English as a Second Language at the high school for 18 years now and has seen her student caseload balloon. Most of the students have come from Mexico, but recently she's teaching more who've fled from Honduras.

STRINGER: Some of them through the desert, some of them crawling through sewer pipes and being lost just to get here. I feel like anyone who can turn someone away who has done that to have a chance to live is just wrong.

BLOCK: So when she hears President Trump compare undocumented immigrants to an invasion or infestation of the U.S., she bristles.

STRINGER: I mean, I think of cockroaches. I think of horrible, nasty things to be eradicated. And that's not what these people are. They're really good people.

STEVIE BARR: We'll play a little "Turkey In The Straw."


BLOCK: Galax, Va., is famous for its musical heritage, old-time and bluegrass music. And it was known for its once-thriving furniture and textile industry. Those factory jobs drew Hispanic immigrants to Galax starting in the 1990s. And even though many of those factories are gone, the Hispanic population continues to grow.


BARR: There you go (laughter).

BLOCK: That's Stevie Barr playing at Barr's Fiddle Shop, a Galax institution. When the talk turns to immigration, Barr says he admires the Hispanic population's work ethic.

BARR: There's not a lot of folks around this area that I know of that will go and do what these Mexicans do. They work from daylight to dawn.

BLOCK: But he says the workers should have to come legally.

BARR: If you come properly, it's not an invasion. I think it's a great thing. And if you're not going to come here and work and pay taxes and be part of what we believe in - it's just the same way with the Muslims and the other people. If you come here and you want to change all of our values, then you need to go back home. And that's my two cents' worth.

BLOCK: Mike Stevens joins the conversation. Like Barr, he's a Trump voter. He supports building the wall. As for who should get priority as immigrants...

MIKE STEVENS: Folks that need asylum, that truly need asylum, and folks that can benefit this country and not take advantage of the country.

BLOCK: But he believes some asylum-seekers aren't legit; they're gaming the system. In the NPR/Ipsos poll, nearly 40 percent of those surveyed say that refugees and asylum-seekers are taking unfair advantage. Among Republicans, that jumps to 65 percent. Stevens says assimilation is key.

STEVENS: Well, I think folks need to come into this country and say, I'm no longer from the Mexican or wherever they come from - Honduras. They're not hyphenated. I'm not a Polish-American, although I'm 50 percent Polish. I'm an American. They should learn the language. And they should just say, I'm an American.

BLOCK: Stevens believes those already here should get a pathway to citizenship to come out from the shadows - especially, he says, the DACA kids, the so-called DREAMers brought here as children. On that he's in line with much of the country. Sixty percent of those surveyed support giving legal status to DACA recipients.

FABIOLA ESCAMILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Fabiola Escamilla is one of those DACA recipients. She was 13 when she came from Mexico without papers. Now 31, she owns a small grocery store in Galax, a tienda selling tortillas and salsa and arranging transfers for customers sending money back home. So after 18 years in this country, does Escamilla feel American?

ESCAMILLA: No, Mexican a hundred percent. Yeah. I live in the United States, but I'm Mexican. Yeah.

BLOCK: As for her DACA status, she worries it'll be snatched away.

ESCAMILLA: If Trump says you have to go, they kick you out. It doesn't matter if you have DACA or not. I get really mad and really sad in thinking about the future.

BLOCK: And she says the climate in Galax has gotten more hostile since Trump was elected. She recalls sitting outside her store last year with her mother and some friends. A red truck drove by with an elderly white couple inside.

ESCAMILLA: And they scream us, you immigrants, Mexicans, go back to Mexico. I'm going to call the police. I was in shock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think the A/C has been off...

BLOCK: Oh, that's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...So it might be a little warm. Yeah, OK (laughter).

BLOCK: Our last stop in Galax...

RICKY ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Ricky Alvarado helped start this church with his father, a pastor. Their family immigrated to the U.S. legally from Costa Rica. I might be an oddball, he tells me. As a Latino Trump supporter, Alvarado agrees with the zero tolerance policy.

ALVARADO: A lot of us did struggle a lot to become citizens of this country. And it's not fair if you come into this country illegally - come in through the window, I guess you could say, not the front door. It doesn't make sense.

BLOCK: At the same time he knows that many in his congregation are undocumented.

ALVARADO: A lot of them actually came to this congregation a few days after they crossed the border. And, yeah, there's desperation. And, yes, there is a lot of heavy background that they're running away from.

BLOCK: So that puts him in a tough spot. This has become my family, Alvarado says. I'd protect them if I could. Like many in this town, he's come to realize the immigration system in this country defies a simple fix. Melissa Block, NPR News, Galax, Va.


SHAPIRO: And the complete poll results are available at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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