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Demographic Changes Spark Debate Over Immigration In Nevada


The third and final presidential debate will be in Nevada tomorrow. It's a state where the presidential race is close and where control of the Senate could be decided. Washoe County in western Nevada is predominantly white. Its Hispanic population has grown dramatically over the years, and that's the kind of demographic change that has sparked the sometimes contentious debate over immigration during this election. NPR's Sarah McCammon traveled to Reno to get a sense of what voters there are thinking.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Brent Harger (ph) has always voted. But until this year, the 57-year-old former mechanic says he'd never really gotten involved in politics.

BRENT HARGER: I've always been told my voice means nothing. I don't believe that.

MCCAMMON: Harger is disabled, and he's using some of his free time to volunteer for the Republican Party's get-out-the-vote efforts in Washoe County.

HARGER: And there's a lot of people that are scared to even say anything today because they don't think their voice means anything.

MCCAMMON: Harger says he doesn't feel free to express his opposition to same-sex marriage. His wife, Leslie Harger (ph), expresses fear along with frustration. She says there are people in the community who look suspicious to her. And Harger says the taboo of racial profiling keeps her from freely speaking out.

LESLIE HARGER: We just keep our eyes open, and we're vigilant because of the way that terrorists, you know, are coming into our country now.

MCCAMMON: The Hargers met at a wedding in Reno more than 35 years ago, married and raised two sons now 28 and 30. Both are living at home and have struggled to pay for college and get good jobs. And over the years, the Hargers have seen the area change.

When they met, Hispanics represented 1 in 20 residents of Reno. Today they're 1 out of every 4. Since 1980, the percentage of Reno residents born outside the U.S. has more than doubled. Leslie Harger says she supports legal immigration, but sometimes she feels like newcomers have it better than they do.

HARGER: We can all enjoy each other's multi-cultures, and, like, we all like Mexican food. Or we like, you know, all different kinds of food and things. But don't come here and take. And that's what I think that I'm seeing. A lot of people are taking.

MCCAMMON: Despite working for decades, the Hargers say they've struggled to get disability payments for Brent's back and neck injuries. Meanwhile, they see some immigrants getting good jobs and worry they're taking work from native-born citizens.

Across town at a Mexican restaurant and grocery store, two young women are keeping the family business going while their parents are out of town.

GRACIA MORA CHAVEZ: Hi, my name's Gracia Mora (ph), and we are here at (speaking Spanish).

MCCAMMON: Gracia Mora Chavez (ph) is 19, and she puts in about 50 hours a week here. She's quiet and reserved but not shy about her role in running the family business.

MORA CHAVEZ: I'm the boss, you know?


MCCAMMON: You're kind of proud of that, aren't you?

MORA CHAVEZ: Yeah, I'm proud of it.

MCCAMMON: Mora Chavez was here on a recent day when Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine made a surprise campaign stop. She became a U.S. citizen as a small child, and she plans to cast her first vote for the Democratic ticket. She says Donald Trump is unfairly singling out her community with his rhetoric on immigration.

MORA CHAVEZ: He stereotypes Mexicans or Latinos. And we are the ones who actually work to have a better future.

MCCAMMON: Her cousin Daniela Araya Chavez (ph) is 21 and does not have legal status. She's been here since she was a young child.

DANIELA ARAYA CHAVEZ: I didn't choose to come here by myself, you know? My mom decided to come here, and it was actually a really good choice because I just have better opportunities here.

MCCAMMON: Araya Chavez says she's hoping to get legal status through her fiance and go to school. She says Trump's talk about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants paints an unfair picture of the people she knows.

ARAYA CHAVEZ: Do you ever see, like, a Hispanic person, like, asking you for money outside or whatever - no. They'd rather, like, go work. I've seen a lot of people, like, struggling even selling, like, ice cream or stuff like that, (unintelligible) knocking at your house, you know, to, like, get money or whatever to support themselves and their family.

MCCAMMON: Gracia Mora Chavez switches to Spanish for a moment to try to express her thoughts about Trump.

MORA CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCAMMON: "He's an ignorant person," she says, "who critiques Latinos without knowing who they are."

Leslie Harger feels like Trump is the first politician in a long time really knows what's going on. And that's brought her comfort.

HARGER: I live in a lot of pain and stuff that I have to deal with every day.

MCCAMMON: Trump's candidacy has been a bright spot in her life, especially since her cancer diagnosis last year.

HARGER: This thing when Trump came along - it's been a dark eight years, and I mean a dark eight years. I've watched my country go from a place where I felt safe to a very unsafe world. I don't feel safe anymore here. And you know, I just - Trump has given me hope that we can get somebody who's got his fingers on the pulse of what's going on.

MCCAMMON: A source of hope for some and fear for others in a year when divisions have been laid bare. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Reno, Nev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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