Posted on July 18, 2018

Amid a Hispanic Boom, Conflicting Feelings on Immigration

Melissa Block, NPR, July 17, 2018


To explore some of the poll’s findings, we went to the small town of Galax, in rural southwestern Virginia, which has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the state. There, we found a community that holds many of the complicated — often conflicting — views on immigration that the nation does.

About 7,000 people live in Galax, set in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, close by the North Carolina border.

“When I was growing up, Galax was very white; a very traditional small-town mountain community,” says Elizabeth Stringer, 40, who teaches English as a Second Language at the high school.

Over the past 18 years, she’s seen her student caseload balloon. In the Galax schools now, almost a third of the students are Hispanic.

Most of Stringer’s students came from Mexico, but recently, she’s been teaching more kids who fled from Honduras. “Some of them through the desert,” she says, “some of them crawling through sewer pipes and being lost just to get here.


Another benchmark of Galax’s demographic change: of the 11 starters on the high school boys’ soccer team this past year, all but one were Hispanic.


The Latino soccer players have powered the Galax team to four state championships in the last five years. The champion team is celebrated with a triumphant victory parade through town, escorted by fire trucks and police cars.


This part of Appalachia is solidly red. Nearly 80 percent of people in the surrounding 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, 52 percent of Republicans support separating families who cross the border illegally, as a deterrent.

Just 11 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents support family separation.

Galax is famous for its musical heritage of old-time and bluegrass music; it hosts what it bills as the world’s oldest and largest fiddlers’ convention each August.

The town used to be 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 the factories are now gone, the Hispanic population continues to grow.


Our poll shows Americans are evenly divided on whether immigrants do not easily assimilate into U.S. society. 33 percent agree that they do not; 31 percent disagree; 35 percent neither agree nor disagree or don’t know.


Escamilla believes the climate in Galax has gotten more hostile since Trump was elected, {snip}.


As the Hispanic congregation grew at the mother church, First Baptist, it also outgrew its space. So about four years ago, the Latino congregation moved to its own building for Spanish-language services.


At the same time, Alvarado knows that many in his congregation are undocumented.

“A lot of ’em actually came to this congregation a few days after they crossed the border,” he says. “There’s desperation and there’s a lot of a heavy background that they’re running away from.”


Like many in Galax, Alvarado has come to realize the immigration system in this country defies a simple fix.