Voice of the Voter: Opinions on immigration differ in California agricultural town

By David Siders
By David Siders The Sacramento Bee
Last modified: 2012-10-14T14:45:34Z
Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 7:45 am

PORTERVILLE – The road to Porterville cuts east through the San Joaquin Valley, past Poplar Feed, the Mister 99-Cent Plus Discount Store and a truck supply center with a Mitt Romney sign on the door.

This is one place in California where the Republican nominee for president is expected to do well. Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in Tulare County, and John McCain beat Barack Obama here by 15 percentage points in 2008.

Yet this is also a region, because of its agricultural setting and large Latino population, steeped in one major policy area neither Romney nor Obama talks about much – immigration. This electorate on that matter is torn.

Throughout Porterville and the surrounding orchards and dairies are Democrats who feel Obama failed to do enough for undocumented immigrants, and Republicans who groaned when Romney suggested "self-deportation" as part of his solution.

"Basically, we're agriculture," said Jeff Edwards, a local historian who owns a gallery and antique store on Main Street. "We need the labor up here to harvest our crops."

Edwards, who will turn 90 this week, is a Republican and will likely vote for Romney. Still, he said it was "a good deal that Obama did" when he announced a policy this year stopping the deportation of many young people who came to the country illegally as children.

"If they want to come up here," Edwards said, "what's the big deal?"

That is not a universal view. At Porterville High School for bingo one recent evening, Bob Atchley, 61, turned a tin of Copenhagen in his hands and said, "I don't appreciate the ways that the laws of the land and the immigration laws are being neglected."

Atchley, a retired reservist who works for Sunkist Growers Inc., will vote for Romney and has "nothing good to say about Obama."

"I was in the service for 41 years, and I didn't risk my life for illegal aliens, criminals," Atchley said. "I risked my life for this country, for the citizens of this country and the flag."

Porterville is a relatively poor city of about 55,000 people on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. More than 60 percent of its residents are Latino, and nearly everyone has ties to agriculture.

"If the engine doesn't start," says a billboard advertising engine oil between the local community college and a Wal-Mart distribution center, "then neither does the harvest."

"We do have, I would say, a fiscally conservative population here," said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "But agriculture does take the extreme right representation and pull it back to a more moderate, middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to immigration, because we are largely reliant on a foreign and undocumented immigrant worker population."

At a clothing store owned by his in-laws down the street from Edwards' gallery, Alfonso Alvarado, a 28-year-old Democrat, has become so disappointed with Obama's handling of the economy and support of gay marriage that he plans to become a Republican and vote for Romney on Nov. 6.

But Alvarado, like Edwards, favors amnesty for undocumented immigrants currently working here.

"I think a lot of them are here for good reasons," said Alvarado, who works at a sawmill nearby. "They want to better their lives and work."

The desire to let undocumented immigrants work in the United States does not necessarily constitute a welcoming reception. More than 70 percent of Tulare County voters favored Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative – later overturned by the courts – to restrict state services to undocumented immigrants.

"These people over here, they are taking advantage," said Gloria Godoy, 46, whose family owns the Mister 99-Cent Plus Discount Store on the outskirts of town.

Godoy, whose family came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 14, sold a push-pop to a girl one recent morning and complained about the use of social services by undocumented immigrants.

She is a Republican and plans to vote for Romney.

"I think probably Romney is going to be harder on immigration," she said, "for the benefit for the country."

California is so heavily Democratic that the presidential race here is not competitive. Even in contested states with substantial Latino populations, however, immigration has paled as an issue next to the economy.

For the presidential candidates, it is a subject that is "hard for Democrats and Republicans alike," said Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "They're likely to piss more people off than please people by taking a nuanced stance."

Last week, Obama traveled to Keene, not far from Porterville, to designate as a national monument the home of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Nicolas Orizaga, who manages the bookstore at Porterville College, would have gone if he didn't have to work.

Orizaga said his father snuck across the border from Mexico before he was born, and he still has family in that country. The 33-year-old Democrat will vote for Obama. However, he is disappointed with Obama's failure, early in his term, to enact a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He was also disturbed when a friend told him – accurately – that Obama has overseen a record number of deportations.

"I think he could have done more, especially in his first two years," Orizaga said. "I think he was probably thinking we're going to have this Senate majority for four years, no need to tackle everything at once."

Orizaga has been happier lately with Obama, particularly with his order restricting deportations, though he believes the timing may be political.

"I'm glad it's getting done, some of the stuff he's doing," Orizaga said. "But the timing seems a little weird."

At the local bingo game that evening, Debbie Patiño was optimistic Obama will make progress on immigration if he wins re-election.

She and her husband, Ed, moved here from San Jose in 1984 for a slower pace of life, they said, and the first job Ed Patiño found was in a fruit packinghouse. He learned Spanish from his colleagues and translated for many of them.

Debbie Patiño pointed out it was Columbus Day. In a nation of immigrants she said, "I feel California is Mexico."

She and her husband are Democrats and will vote for Obama. For undocumented immigrants, she said, Romney is "scary."

The size of the Latino population is not reflected in the electorate.

Some Latinos living here are not citizens and are ineligible to cast ballots, and those who are eligible are relatively low-propensity voters. Of about 140,000 registered voters in Tulare County, only about 3,000 voters request Spanish-language ballots,
according to county elections officials.

Rebecca Jauregui oversees a literacy program at the public library in downtown Porterville. Most of her clients are trying to learn English "to function in the community, when they're in the grocery store or the post office," she said.

But Jauregui also helps people study to become citizens, and she tries to encourage people who are citizens to vote. Many immigrants don't vote, Jauregui said, because they are intimidated or unfamiliar with the process.

"We're trying to get someone to come out, to talk about how easy it is," she said.

On the outskirts of town, Angelica Esquivel, 45, watered her front lawn the other day at the Woodville Farm Labor Center, a public housing project for farmworkers. She is considering applying for citizenship when her residency expires in 2014, but she is skeptical of the political process.

Candidates "make a lot of promises" they rarely keep, she said, and to Esquivel, Obama and Romney are "pretty much the same."

Esquivel's daughter Melissa Esquivel is a citizen and could vote. But the 20-year-old said she won't.

Elections, she said, are just "a lot of lies."

Voice of the Voter: Opinions on immigration differ in California agricultural town - Elections - The Sacramento Bee