Immigration debate also takes root in N. Hampshire
Dallas Morning News
Oct. 29, 2007


By Todd J. Gillman

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

DERRY, N.H. — The bright green "Secure Our Future" T-shirt marked Roy Feinauer's membership in a group formed to pressure candidates on Social Security. So Sen. John McCain was pretty sure what to expect when the retired accountant raised his hand at a recent town hall meeting.

He got a curveball, instead — a pointed question about his views on illegal immigrants.

"I don't know how we're going to export 11 million people, but maybe if we made them all talk English, we might get somewhere," Feinauer said.

New Hampshire is nearly all white, but there have been some flare-ups over immigration — attempts by police to drive out illegal-immigrant workers, and allegations of racial profiling and growing antagonism among whites. In any other small state, such friction might be shrugged off as growing pains and local concerns.

But this is New Hampshire, host of the nation's first presidential primary. Here, all politics is national, and that goes for the immigration debate.

"It's one of those issues that's just bubbling below the surface," said the state's top pollster, Andy Smith, director of the Granite State Poll.

Republican voters seem far more exercised about the issue than Democrats. McCain gets questions about immigration policy every time he shows up, as do his rivals.

And he's learned to offer contrition for his failed push for a guest worker program and path to citizenship for illegal immigrant workers.

"Americans want the border secure, and they want that first," he told Feinauer, who seemed mollified.

The 90-year-old Feinauer, a lifelong Derry resident, conceded that his town may not have any immigrants, legal or illegal, but said that's no reason for apathy.

"I, and I think New Hampshire as well, we are interested because it affects our country," he said as the town hall broke up. "And I think: America first."

New Hampshire isn't the most homogeneous state in the union. West Virginia holds that distinction. But it ranks right up there.

About 94 percent of residents are white and non-Hispanic. Since the 2000 census, the number of Hispanics has risen 45 percent — a whopping percentage, but representing just 9,000 extra people, a blip in a state of 1.3 million.

"It is a very white state," said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "It isn't a microcosm of America."

Still, the state has had dust-ups.

In mid-2005, police in two towns got fed up with lax federal border enforcement and decided to try a new tack.

One day after work, Jorge Mora Ramirez, a roofer from Waltham, Mass., was passing through New Ipswich, population 5,000 or so. An officer noticed a broken taillight. It turned out that Ramirez had overstayed his visa. Police Chief Garrett Chamberlain charged him with criminal trespass, reasoning that if a person lacks permission to be in the country, he can't be in town legally, either.

Police in Hudson, N.H., soon tried the same approach, arresting eight immigrants from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

A state judge threw out the charges and chastised the police, telling them to leave immigration enforcement to federal authorities.

The victory for immigrants unleashed latent frustrations among other New Hampshire residents, by many accounts.

"Now they feel entitled to say, 'The stupid Mexicans come here, and they don't even bother to learn the language,' " said Eva Castillo, a longtime Hispanic activist in Manchester, who alleges that police in several cities routinely harass immigrants and people who look like they might be. "It's getting out of hand."

One longtime Hudson resident said he finds the growing hostility disconcerting. Alejandro Urrutia arrived from Mexico 21 years ago. He recently left his job in Boston as outreach director for the American Red Cross to run his own health and safety consulting company. "The law enforcers are hunting illegal immigrants," he said.

There is foment on both sides. In Concord, state lawmakers voted this year to defy the congressional Real ID Act mandate, requiring states to verify identities when renewing drivers' licenses. In January, two Demo-cratic lawmakers proposed to explicitly bar police from enforcing immigration laws. The so-called "sanctuary state" bill died in committee, but it became a rallying cry for anti-illegal-immigrant forces.

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, a long-shot GOP presidential contender, went to the New Hampshire capital last month and declared that the bill's authors should be thrown from office and prosecuted for "aiding and abetting" unlawful immigrants.

Illegal-immigration foes huddled a few weeks ago at a Nashua hotel.

Five state representatives showed up, along with the New Ipswich police chief and others. They're planning an even bigger gathering in Manchester, and it wouldn't bother them if the organizing alone deters some immigration.

"Let's face it," said Susan Tully, national field director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who led the meeting. "Illegal aliens go the path of least resistance. … The feeling is, yes, it's not as bad as other places, but we've got to do something before it gets that way."

Immigrant advocates grumble that outsiders are stirring up discontent or at least capitalizing on it to further their own agendas.

"New Hampshire attracts outside people," said Nabil Migalli, a Manchester social worker who leads an Arab-American group. "Most of these politics are not local politics."

Manchester's Elm Street is ground zero for presidential campaigns, and it's just west of a heavily Hispanic neighborhood. Tucked amid the campaign offices and restaurants, Star Fashion is a window into that subculture. There's a Bill Richardson for President sign; New Mexico's Hispanic governor is the favorite of owner Maria Amaya, who wires money and sells such wares as quinceañera dresses and international calling cards that aren't readily available at the mall.

She came to Nashua 22 years ago, and at first found hardly anyone to speak with in Spanish. She opened the Manchester store 15 years ago and made barely enough to cover rent. But immigrants kept trickling into town. A decade ago, she managed to buy the entire building.

"More people came every day, from all the Spanish countries," she said.