New York Magazine, this week, tells the story of a Trump-Loving Town and its Favorite Undocumented Immigrant. The story features Alex Garcia, a native of Honduras, who has built deep personal relationships with his working class, Trump-supporting neighbors who are now organizing to prevent his deportation.
Alex moved to Poplar Bluff, Missouri (population 17,000) in 2002 and has since built a life for himself. He’s worked a range of jobs, married, and fathered five U.S. born children. He works in construction and has developed a reputation for being a good guy who looks after others in his community.
Alex is also undocumented and has an old drunk driving conviction. Yet despite staying out of trouble since and checking in with immigration officials regularly, the Trump Administration wants to deport him.
With the help and support of his community he has taken sanctuary in a local church and many of his neighbors have vowed to protect him.
One of those neighbors is Bruce Peterson, a local contractor who befriended Alex early on and claims that since getting to know him his views have changed.
“The rules are the rules, but it’s just weird when you know someone. It’s just not right.”
One of Alex’s other defenders is Jan Pryibil, a retiree. However, she wasn’t always on board with her church’s decision to provide him sanctuary.
“I’m a rule follower,” Pryibil says. “I count my groceries. If I have 21 items, I don’t go to the express lane. I thought when you come into the country, you need to do it the way you’re supposed to.”
A strong desire to see everyone follow the rules is an idea that animates many who criticize unauthorized immigration.
However, Pryibil’s positive contact with Alex changed her views.
“She’d see Garcia volunteering at the food pantry or feeding a homeless couple who slept in their car in the parking lot. He’d prepare meals for people who sought shelter in the church on cold winter nights…He told her his story. She learned he liked apple pie, and when the food pantry had apples, she’d bake for him…She has come to see the invective the president directs at immigrants as misguided and “too harsh.” She told me, “I guess you need to know a person’s story before you can make a decision one way or the other.”
Another friend, Corbit Barnet, explains how complicated the issue of immigration becomes once you connect with someone who is undocumented.
“Hell, dude, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do…but breaking families apart isn’t right. I know it’s hard for the government to go through each case individually, but they got to.”
The attitude shifting power of friendly contact between immigrants and U.S. born residents is well-documented. Social contact theory tells us that friendly contact increases positive attitudes towards immigrants and that theory holds across political party affiliation.
The power of these connections is playing out in real time in Poplar Bluff. Those who know Alex care for him and want to protect him. Through contact, Alex has moved from membership in some fundamentally different group of “them” to one of “us” – not an uncommon journey for many newcomers in America.
Now the residents of Poplar Bluff, many of whom elected Trump, are now pushing back against his immigration policies as they attempt to keep one of their own safe from punitive immigration enforcement that prioritizes deportation numbers over human lives.