Donald Trump’s stand on Mexico, illegal immigration divides Georgians

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks at a signed pledge during a news conference in Trump Tower in New York.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks at a signed pledge during a news conference in Trump Tower in New York.

Beyond the frilly pink quinceanera dresses and around the corner from the big white cowboy hats for sale in Plaza Fiesta, shoppers strolling through Chamblee’s cavernous international mall can hear the carne asada sizzling behind Carlos Chavez’ taco counter.

A naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico City, Chavez’s pride in his roots is on constant display at Puras Tortas. He has outfitted his employees with uniforms bearing the colors of Mexico’s flag: green, red and white. So it isn’t surprising that Chavez has a strong opinion about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Chavez counts himself among Hispanic voters who are deeply offended by the New York real estate mogul’s comments about Mexico and illegal immigration. Accusing Mexico of sending “rapists” to the U.S., Trump is proposing deporting all the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S., building a new wall on the southwest border at Mexico’s expense and ending automatic birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of those living here illegally.

After President Barack Obama won reelection with 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, Republican leaders urged a softer approach to Latino voters. Their post-election autopsy concluded that “if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

Yet, Trump is now leading the GOP pack in the presidential polls as he hammers on Mexico and illegal immigration. His support ers - who include white nationalist and neo-Confederate groups operating in Georgia — say he is raising important topics other Republicans are afraid to tackle.

Federal election records show that between April and June the billionaire has received donations from just three people with Georgia addresses. One of them is Joseph New, a Carrollton moving company executive who agreed to be interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by e-mail. Trump, New said, would do more than any of the other candidates to address illegal immigration and is the “non-pansy in the race.”

“Look, here’s the deal, he blows a lot of one-liners and hot air and most people think he is nutty!” wrote New, who donated $250 to Trump’s campaign in June. “However, make no mistake about it, he is not nutty and he is extremely intelligent and can indeed solve a lot of problems that most candidates can’t and may not even know exist, so don’t take him lightly.”

New said he likes Trump’s positions on the economy, the growth of government and “regulation overreach.”

Trump’s message is also resonating with leaders of groups on the far right, including the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South. Both organizations — labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center — are glad Trump is pressuring the Republican establishment to address illegal immigration.

Based in Alabama, the League of the South’s website says the group seeks to protect the “Anglo-Celtic core population and culture” and wants the South to secede from the rest of the nation.

“These are things that scare the living daylights out of the Republican establishment,” Michael Hill, the league’s president, said of Trump’s statements on immigration, “because it touches on race and ethnicity and all the things they say Americans don’t pay any attention to. They can say that, but race and ethnicity are facts and people have to deal with them.”

Earl Holt is head of the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which oppose efforts to “mix the races of mankind” and “promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures.”

“It is a good thing that he is challenging the establishment Republicans,” Holt said, adding about illegal immigration: “I think it is something that concerns ordinary American citizens… It’s obvious the general voting public wants to talk about this issue.”

It’s certainly an issue that plays well among Georgia’s conservative Republican base. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was met with a chorus of boos and hisses at a state GOP convention in 2007 when he voiced support for a bipartisan immigration reform package. Since then, Republicans in the state have adopted a tough approach.

Sipping a “Super Verde” smoothie from one of the several other shops he owns in the mall, Chavez talked about how he used to be a Republican. The late President Ronald Reagan is one of his heroes, he voted for George W. Bush for president, and he calls himself a conservative Catholic. But the Brookhaven resident is critical of how the GOP has handled the U.S. economy and opposed bipartisan efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

Chavez called Trump’s immigration proposals economically ruinous. He criticized how Univision anchor Jorge Ramos was kicked out of one of Trump’s recent news conferences, noting how many Hispanics see Ramos as their champion. And Trump went over the line, Chavez said, when he accused Mexico of sending criminals to the U.S.

“I found it very offensive when he made that comment. For me, it was an insult,” Chavez said. “When [Republicans] had the Hispanics in their pockets, they turned their backs on us.”

Many other Hispanics like Chavez are reacting negatively to Trump. A Gallup poll released last month shows 65 percent of the 650 Hispanics polled view Trump unfavorably. Other Republicans in the crowded presidential field have also campaigned on immigration but none have made it the signature issue that Trump has and none have come close to his unfavorable rating among Hispanics.

“We have had conversations with many Latinos all around the state and pretty much people are disgusted with the racist and xenophobic type of proposals and statements by Donald Trump,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, which includes Democratic and Republican members. “It is staining the Republican brand because of that and it is problematic with the presidential election coming up.”

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, said it’s unclear how much of an impact Hispanics will make at the polls in next year’s presidential election. He noted Republican nominee Mitt Romney convincingly won Georgia over Obama with 53 percent of the vote in the 2012. Romney took a hardline approach to illegal immigration that year, embracing the concept of “self-deportation” and vowing to oppose the DREAM Act, legislation that would give special consideration to immigrants who were illegally brought here as children.

The nation’s 53 million Hispanics accounted for 17 percent of the population but just 10 percent of voters in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center report released that year. But Hispanics will make up 40 percent of the growth in the eligible electorate in the U.S. through 2030, when 40 million of them will be eligible to vote. In Georgia, Hispanics made up less than 2 percent voters last year, though their numbers grew 570 percent between 2003 and 2014, up to 84,925.

“Relatively few Hispanics vote in Georgia elections, at least in the exit polls we have seen,” Black said. “The national pattern is one thing. The Georgia pattern is another.”

But Black added that as the Georgia’s electorate becomes much more diverse “the Republicans who take these positions on immigration will make it very difficult for the Party to attract very much of that new and growing minority vote.”