LACONIA, NH — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been offering increasingly tough talk on immigration as he steadily gains on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary on February 9.
As Trump has won over angry crowds across the state with speeches linking immigration to crime and terrorism, Rubio has begun to mimic his hard-line stance.
“The first thing we must do is make sure ISIS never gets into the United States using our immigration system,” he told a crowd in Laconia on Wednesday. He added that, if elected, he would hire 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, finish 700 miles of fences and walls along the U.S./Mexico border, and strip federal funding from “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Rubio also blasted the current system for legal immigration based on family reunification, saying that “maybe that worked okay in the 1950s,” but he would institute a system based solely on work skills.
Residents of New Hampshire’s northern lakes region who packed into the nation’s oldest textile mill to grill Rubio about immigration and other topics had mixed reactions to these promises.
Some, like 77-year-old Vince Merola from Wolfboro, criticized the first-term senator for sponsoring a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, asking how he could trust him as president based on that record. Other voters slammed Rubio for being too harsh, demanding to know why he no longer supports a path to citizenship for undocumented people who have made a life in the United States.
As he has done in the past, Rubio disavowed his past support for comprehensive immigration reform, claiming that such an effort is now impossible.
“Over the last five years, we’ve had two executive orders that legalize people, and zero enforcement,” he said, adding that there are two million more undocumented people in the country than there were in 2010, “and the number continues to grow.”
In fact, the number of undocumented people in the U.S. has fallen over the last decade, recently dipping below the often cited 11 million figure. More Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than arriving. And despite Rubio’s claim of “zero enforcement” under President Obama, his presidency has seen record deportations, the expansion of private immigration jails, and controversial raids targeting Central American asylum seekers. President Obama has also overseen a massive increase in Border Patrol agents and border militarization efforts.
While Rubio’s hard-line stance pleased many in the room, who greeted his promises with cheers, one man stood up and confronted him. “I hire an illegal immigrant named Fernando,” he said. “He’s been with me for several years. He has a master key to all the apartments I manage. He’s never raped anybody. He’s never stolen anything. How about a path for the Fernandos, to legitimize them?”
Rubio responded, “I sympathize with the story you told, but I also sympathize with the American people who have to bear the burden of people coming into this country illegally.” He then insisted that “for every Fernando there’s a story that would outrage you,” giving the example of Cubans who abuse the “wet foot, dry foot” refugee benefits program, which drew cries of outrage from the audience.
In the end, he answered that “we’ll figure something out” for hard-working long-time residents like Fernando, “but not until illegal immigration is under control.”
After the town hall, other residents told ThinkProgress that despite they still viewed Rubio as “weak” on the issue despite his promises of deportations and border build-ups. “He may say all the right things, but when you check his record, he’s an opportunist and he does what the party wants,” Merola said. “And when he was in the Florida legislature, he supported free tuition for illegal immigrants. Why should I believe him now?”
Merola added that Rubio has lost his vote. “Immigration affects all aspects of our lives,” he said. “It affects our debt, because we’re spending billions on illegal immigrants, it affects legal immigrants and citizens who are not finding jobs. It affect our health care costs, because we’re giving them free health care.”
Though immigrants in New Hampshire contribute tens of millions of dollars in taxes each year and present a far smaller burden on programs like food stamps than native-born residents, many voters share Merola’s fears and concerns.
Laconia is one of four New Hampshire cities participating in a multi-year project to make the state more welcoming to immigrants. Kate Bruchacova and Susan Laverack with the New Hampshire Partnership for Public Health, who work with immigrants in Laconia, told ThinkProgress they’re worried anti-immigrant rhetoric from Rubio and other Republican candidates could pose a serious setback.
“With all the things people hear on the news, it’s not easy to make people appreciate the newcomers in the area,” Bruchacova told ThinkProgress. “We really have our work cut out for us. We have to help people get to know each other so they don’t see each other as so different.”
Bruchacova, a Slovakian native who is now a U.S. citizen, describes herself as Laconia’s “walking welcome center” for new immigrants. She teaches them how to navigate the confusing bureaucracies of the local and federal government. She holds cooking classes, language exchanges, and soccer games to help those born in New Hampshire and those born abroad get to know one another. They’re also recruiting new citizens to serve on local city councils and other boards to feel more invested in their communities.
CREDIT: NH Partnership for Public Health
“In the past, when someone new would migrate here, especially a person of color, they were a target,” Laverack said. “But with the work we’re doing, helping people tell each other their stories, I really think it’s helping.”
As in the rest of the state, the vast majority of Laconia residents are white. But influxes of immigrants and refugees over the last few decades from China, Bhutan, Jamaica, South Africa, and various Latin American countries have diversified the once homogeneous community. Though some immigrants work in the local hospital and in manufacturing plants, most work in the hospitality and tourism sectors — jobs that are seasonal and barely pay above minimum wage.
“The wages are not attractive for local people, but they are attractive for the new immigrants,” Bruchacova said. She added that she does see some hiring discrimination against immigrants, citing the case of an Iraqi refugee with two Masters degrees who struggled to find work and eventually left the state. “He’s not a drain to society, but he was still getting mistreated, just because he had an Arabic name.”
“Meanwhile the population of age 65 and above is going to double in the next decade, and many of the young people leave for college and don’t come back, so who is going to be our labor force?” Laverack added. “We think immigrants are vital to the social and economic fabric of our community. So hopefully before they go to vote next week, enough New Hampshire residents will do their homework and understand the benefits of immigration.”