Aries Haygood knelt in the sandy soil on one of his vast Vidalia onion fields recently to hunt for yellowing leaves, a telltale sign of distress. Failing to find many, he smiled, predicting it could be a good harvest.
In April, his family business, M&T Farms, will hire 85 temporary guest workers from Mexico to handpick the delicate onions, destined for stores along the East Coast, including many in the Atlanta area. Known for their sweetness and versatility, the prized onions end up on burgers, as delicious fried onion rings and in soups and salads.
Haygood cast his ballot for Donald Trump and supports the new border wall the president pushed for in his State of the Union address this week, saying it could help keep out illegal drugs. But he also wants the federal government to overhaul the H-2A guest worker program that his business uses to bring in the Mexican workers, saying it is costly and full of red tape. Some of his workers have arrived late in the past because of problems in the visa system.
M&T Farms is based in Toombs County, a rural Southeast Georgia county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump — 73 percent — in the 2016 presidential election. Toombs remains solidly Trump country. But like Haygood, many in Toombs have nuanced views about immigration, largely because of the county’s agricultural industry and diversity.
Twelve percent of Toombs’ roughly 27,000 residents are Hispanic, and 7 percent were born abroad. Each year, Toombs attracts many migrant Hispanic workers who come here — legally — to harvest Vidalia onions, which are still predominantly hand-planted and handpicked. The $90 million Vidalia onion industry is so important to this region that it features an annual onion festival, a museum devoted to the vegetable and an onion-shaped mascot with blue overalls named “Yumion.”
“If our people are not here when we get ready to harvest, that can be impactful for us,” Haygood said. “I would love to see the border wall and H-2A reformed.”
Other Toombs residents aren’t convinced about Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall. Willis NeSmith Jr. — mayor of Lyons, the county seat — would rather see the taxpayer money spent improving the nation’s health-care system, noting his constituents are struggling to pay for medical care.
“We can spend money better doing something else instead of spending it on a border wall,” said NeSmith, adding he voted for Trump after his first choice, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, dropped out of the 2016 presidential race. “I think a wall should be the last option.”
Chatting at Chatters
Clint Williams sat down for breakfast recently with a bunch of friends at Chatters, a popular restaurant in Lyons. Over fried eggs and grits, they gossiped good-naturedly about friends and local high school football rivalries. A framed picture of a Vidalia onion hung on the wall behind them.
Williams — a gregarious, pony-tailed entrepreneur who describes immigrants as an asset to Toombs and who employs some — underscored that other countries have erected walls on their borders and strictly screen visitors. A mounted buck wearing one of President Donald Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats hangs on the wall in the lobby of Williams’ family pine straw business.
“You should not be able to just come in here and compete for jobs and compete for the benefits people are getting — on lower income — without paying your dues,” said Williams, chairman of the Toombs Board of Education. “You have to have some way to control people coming into this country.”
Veda Estrada of Lyons, a waitress at Chatters, married a Mexican immigrant who came here without legal papers and is now helping him obtain a green card. Estrada said she voted for Trump, so she doesn’t talk to her husband about politics.
“To me, he was the lesser of the two evils,” she said of Trump. “Trump is a good president, if he would just shut his mouth.”
Hardy Thomas, a plant pathologist from Lyons, supports putting up a new border wall. But he worries Trump could push the government toward totalitarianism, if he were to declare a statement of emergency and build it without congressional approval.
“That could become an abuse of power,” said Thomas, who voted for Trump. “It has gotten to where when someone gets elected president they just think they can snap their fingers and it is supposed to be done.”
Wallace Gordy, a Trump voter who owns an automotive repair business in Lyons, is concerned about the burden unauthorized immigrants place on the county’s taxpayer-funded resources, including its public schools.
“I say build it,” he said of the wall. “I’m for it.”
It is unknown how many people are living in the shadows in Toombs. Georgia was home to an estimated 400,000 unauthorized immigrants in 2016, though most of them are believed to be in the Atlanta region.
Toombs Sheriff Alvie Kight Jr. suspects some are working in his county’s onion fields, using phony identification documents. His deputies have arrested unauthorized immigrants for noise violations, property damage, driving without a license and selling marijuana and methamphetamine, but Kight said they don’t create a disproportionate share of problems in the county.
Toombs sheriff’s deputies contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement whenever they arrest someone and discover they are using multiple identities. Kight has not applied to join the federal 287(g) program, which authorizes local authorities to help ICE enforce federal immigration laws. He said his deputies already have their hands full dealing with other problems, including probation and parole violations committed by U.S. citizens.
“I just don’t feel like we have that big of a problem here in Toombs County” with unauthorized immigrants, said Kight, a Trump voter who supports expanding the border wall. “I think we need a wall — I really do — for security of this country.”
The go-to guy on immigration
When they need legal help, immigrants head to Lew Tippett’s law office in Vidalia. They sink into one of his blue leather chairs next to his framed Arnold Friberg picture of George Washington. And then they open up about their dilemmas.
Among them, he said, are many “Dreamers,” the nickname given to young immigrants who were illegally brought here as children. His heart sinks when he must turn them away, telling them there are no options for them to obtain legal status here.
Tippett, who specializes in helping families legally immigrate to America, wants Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who are already in America, including Dreamers. He was disappointed Trump didn’t discuss their plight during his State of the Union address. At the same time, Tippett voted for Trump and supports his plans for a border wall.
“We need to be sure that we are in control of who is coming in the country, and right now we are not,” he said. “I have clients that come to me and they are in and out of Mexico regularly.”
Vilma and Yeisvi
Vilma Carrillo stood outside the tidy mobile home she shares with her brother’s family in Vidalia, watching her 12-year-old daughter riding her pink bicycle around their neighborhood. Vilma and her daughter, Yeisvi, arrived here last month after a harrowing journey from Guatemala.
The two traveled to the Southwest border in May so Vilma could seek asylum in the United States. Her attorneys have filed voluminous court papers for her, alleging her husband beat her and threatened to kill her. Now under appeal, her asylum case is pending.
Vilma was not given an opportunity to state her claim for asylum on the border last year before federal immigration authorities separated her from her daughter amid enforcement of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, said one of her attorneys, Shana Tabak. Yeisvi was placed in foster care in Arizona. Her mother was convicted of illegally entering the United States and sent to a federal immigration detention center in Ocilla, a small town in South Georgia. They were kept apart for eight months before they were released and reunited in January.
Vilma lost her appetite and often cried while she was apart from her daughter. Prayer and fasting, she said, helped her cope.
“It was like a gift in my heart,” Vilma said of her reunion with her daughter, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “She hugged me. I was crying. And my daughter was crying also.”
This is not their first time in Vidalia. Vilma came here without legal papers in 2003 and harvested onions and pine straw for four years before returning to Guatemala to care for her ailing mother. Yeisvi was born here, making her a U.S. citizen.
Trump’s plans for a new border wall sadden Vilma.
“They are not all bad people who come,” she said. “There are people who come only out of necessity.”
She now considers Vidalia home and wants to get a factory job here. Yeisvi recently started attending a public elementary school in Vidalia. Because of their months-long separation, it is hard for them to be apart now. At night, the two share the same bed, hugging tightly.