Hispanic immigrants in Trump country feel welcome, despite media’s narrative

Pundits portrayed Trump’s win in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, as a backlash to Hispanic immigration. But Hispanic residents there say they feel welcome

ARCADIA, Wis.— In September, when the Trump administration announced it was ending an Obama-era program legalizing immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally as children, many Hispanic immigrants in Arcadia, Wis., became anxious. Some had been beneficiaries of the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and believed that they would be deported to their home countries if Congress doesn’t craft legislation to protect them in the next six months. 

That anxiety prompted Father Fernando Lara Hernandez to begin offering special petitions during Sunday mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Arcadia. “We prayed that God would move the conscience of the government to find a solution for these young people,” he told me recently.

Arcadia’s Hispanic residents are anxious not only because moving back to their birth countries would mean family upheaval and lower wages, but also because most Hispanic immigrants I spoke with here genuinely enjoy life in this rural Wisconsin town, a town that just so happens to be in the heart of Trump country.

With 3,000 residents, Arcadia is the largest city in Trempealeau County, which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Trempealeau Rivers in western central Wisconsin. Only 15 years ago, Hispanics made up just 3 percent of Arcadia’s population. Today, they make up more than one-third.

Most came to work at Ashley Furniture, America’s largest furniture manufacturer, or Gold’n Plump, a chicken processor, both based in Arcadia. Nearly three-quarters of students attending the local public elementary school are Hispanic immigrants, a demographic sea change Arcadia Elementary School Principal Paul Halverson likened to a tsunami 

Donald Trump won Trempealeau County during the Republican presidential primaries (even as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the state) and the general election by 26 points only four years after President Obama had won it by seven. 

Last year a Wall Street Journal study noted Trump’s success in Midwest counties such as Trempealeau that have recently seen high levels of immigration. Some pundits depicted Trump’s victory in Trempealeau County as a racist backlash to the influx of Hispanic immigrants. As a particularly egregious Daily Beast headline put it: “Trump is banking on Wisconsin being racist enough to go red for the first time since 1984.”

But that explanation is far too simplistic. For one thing, Hispanic immigrants have been moving to Arcadia for many years. They were moving here in 2012, for instance, when Trempealeau County favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, who suggested immigrants would “self-deport” under his presidency.

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For another thing, Trump didn’t win just Trempealeau County but many rural Wisconsin counties, most of which have not seen in influx of immigrants.

As Father Sebastian Kolodziejczyk, a priest at Holy Family Parish, said, “[Trump] won the whole state, where not every county is experiencing the same [demographic] situation that we do.”

Kolodziejczyk, a polish priest who learned Spanish while working at a Peruvian orphanage for more than a decade, was brought to Holy Family four years ago to minister to Arcadia’s growing Hispanic community.

After mass one Sunday in July, he told me that he thought most Arcadia residents embraced the city’s newcomers, in part because they are an obvious boon to the economy. “People are smart. They know that Hispanic population in Arcadia contributes a lot to economy. It’s just so obvious,” he said, noting that the unemployment rate is less than 3 percent. “This is not a secret. Everybody knows that. Many businesses would not be able to exist the same way if it wasn’t for them.”

Indeed, walk down Main Street and you’ll see a half-dozen Hispanic-owned businesses, from a Mexican restaurant and Hispanic grocer to a Mexican attorney and a Spanish-language tax preparer.

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Kolodziejczyk said one of his main challenges as a pastor is to bring the native-born community and Hispanic immigrant community together. “In Holy Family Parish, the ratio of English baptisms and Spanish baptisms is more or less one to six, so you know what that means in the future,” he said.

“This is going to be a predominantly Hispanic community. The English speaking community may feel a bit insecure because of it, because it happens so fast. And that’s why the parish, I think, plays an important role, to bring them together and make them realize that this actually could be good. It is good.”

It helps that, although the two communities speak different languages “we have the same common denominator, which is Christianity,” Kolodziejczyk said. “We’re all Christians.”

Carmen, a Mexican immigrant whom Kolodziejczyk introduced me to at Holy Family, said she was immediately welcomed when she arrived here a decade ago. “When I come here, people was really open with me,” she said. “I had really nice people. I had really nice friends. Everyone here is so friendly.”

Carmen said that many newcomers don’t speak English, but the church and many businesses offer dual language and translation services, which is an immense help. “Our community, they feel welcome, are welcome, so they open their arms for us, and this is why I am so happy to live in this place,” she said.

This is not to say that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and pledge to “build a wall” on America’s southern border didn’t resonate with some people here. Nor is it to suggest that there haven’t been some difficult moments. Carmen’s daughter Rossellin recounted that during the 2016 presidential campaign some students at her high school expressed anti-immigrant sentiment and “were very rude towards the other Latino kids at our school.”

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But by and large, immigrants I spoke with here feel welcome. Laura Torres, a Mexican immigrant who moved to the area with her husband in 2010, said she loves Arcadia’s small town charm.

Torres worked assembling furniture at Ashley then as a teller at a local bank before opening her own tax preparation and insurance business on Main Street to cater to the Hispanic population. She said she was “really happy” that she moved to Arcadia. There are certainly challenges, she said, “but I feel really comfortable and in a way safe because it’s a small town.”

“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here,” she continued, “but I know as long as I have a job, I don’t have a reason to move out.”

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Jackie, whom I met as at a park as she waited for her daughter to leave a friend’s quinceanera, said Arcadia is “perfect” for her family of five because the city small size means they “won’t get lost. I like the people, they welcome us, and I have never had a bad experience with anybody,” she said. She also appreciates that Hispanic immigrants and the native-born residents are going out of their way to mingle. “A lot of people try to communicate with the Hispanic community,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of Hispanics who are going to English classes, and they’re trying also to get better with English.”

In the end, the fact that so many immigrants have settled here, and their alarm at the possibility of having to leave, is a strong indication of how welcoming Arcadia is. “I know a lot of people who have been here for years, so that’s something,” said Jackie. “I mean, if they didn’t like it I don’t think they would be here.”

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