The Biggest Issue on Americans’ Minds Is Also a Tough One to Agree On


I don’t know how to make sense of it.

It just hurts my heart.

It should not be that hard.

Americans have argued about immigration for decades, often with anger, fear and racial resentment. But if the debate stands out today, it is for another sentiment coursing through the conversation: exhaustion.

Decades of neglect and political stalemate have left the American immigration system broken in ways that defy simple solutions. The number of people crossing the border has climbed. Many are settling in cities far from the border, making an abstract problem suddenly concrete for some Americans.

And now comes a presidential election.

Ahead of Super Tuesday, when Americans in 15 states are casting their first ballots of the year, we talked to voters about immigration, the issue that has jumped to the top of the list of their concerns.

The conversations revealed worry, frustration, confusion and suspicion. There was appetite for the hard-line approach pushed by Donald J. Trump, the likely Republican nominee who has made his career on anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. There was empathy for migrants who many believe have no other options. And there was little hope that President Biden might figure out a way out of the morass. Notably, the solutions voters proposed didn’t fit neatly into either party’s ideological box.

Gonzalo Torres, 59, came to the United States from southern Mexico more than three decades ago. He had no legal papers, but he had no problem finding work in factories and cleaning offices. He eventually bought a home in La Puente, a diverse middle-class suburb east of Los Angeles.

Last year, he became a citizen. And on Monday, for the first time, he voted in an U.S. election.

He compared the United States to a gorgeous giant cake sitting on a table just out of reach of a group of children.

“You can tell them not to want cake, but it is cake and they will grab it,” he said. “We are all like the children. We see the cake and we want it no matter what.”

For years, Mr. Torres has wondered why the United States does not implement a more robust work visa program, allowing migrants to enter the country for a year or two to make money and then return to their home country.

“We all send the money back, we want to come here for our families and then go back, it could be that simple,” he said. “It does not have to be complicated. People want to help their family.”

“We need immigration to be controlled,” he added. “We can say: We have so many thousands of jobs. You can come and take them and then go back.”

Mr. Torres lives in one of California’s most competitive congressional districts, where Latinos make up roughly 50 percent of all voters, while Asian American and white voters each make up 20 percent.

On Monday, he voted largely for Democrats, he said, sitting in his truck after casting his ballot. “Trump is too crazy, he will get us into World War III,” he said. “He says a lot of things that make no sense.”

Not long after, Susan Wang, 44, a graphic designer who immigrated from Taiwan 20 years ago, and her husband came to drop off their ballots in La Puente. For months now, Ms. Wang said, she has been overwhelmed and confused about news from the border.

“It’s really hard to keep up, to know what is real and what isn’t,” she said, adding that she is a political independent and was more focused on local nonpartisan elections, but is inclined to vote for President Biden. “I don’t know how to make sense of it.”

It is not that she minds more immigrants coming into the country: She knows how eager many are to find more political and economic freedom. But, she said, they cannot gain that freedom by ignoring existing laws.

“Most people are coming here to do things honestly and the right way,” she said. But she finds it hard to ignore a nagging voice in the back of her mind. “What if they aren’t?” she said. “What if they are expecting everything to be handed to them?”

Bonnie Sue Elbert, 60, helps operate her brother’s 400-acre farm alongside the border near Brownsville, Texas, part of which sits behind the border wall. To get there, workers must enter a code on a gate to tend to the corn and other crops.

There’s a lot of land that is actually kind of what they call a no-man’s land,” she said.

She bristles when she hears politicians complain about a broken immigration system.

“Everybody keeps saying it’s broken,” she said. “But we do have laws, and we do have measures in place that we’re supposed to follow that aren’t being followed.”

“If you don’t have a secure border, then it’s wide open and people can come and go pretty much as they please,” she said. “If your border is not secure, then your communities aren’t secure, your families aren’t secure, your state’s not secure. Your country is not secure. It’s only a matter of time.”

Ms. Elbert, who supports Mr. Trump, believes that it is too easy to claim asylum and that Americans are being asked to “bear the burden” of immigrants who arrive with little money.

But, she said, she is not anti-immigration. “Legal immigration is the responsible way to do it,” she said. “That makes the assurance that you can help the people you need to help.”

Now, she said, she sees people she presumes are illegal immigrants all over town.

“They have nothing to do, no place to go, so they just wander the streets,” she said. “I just look at these young men and I’m thinking, you are able bodied. Why are you not standing up in your country trying to make your country better? Why are you here with nothing to do in my country? It doesn’t add up to a good ending.”

As an immigration lawyer in Brownsville, Laura Peña, 42, has an up-close view of the strains on the system and how they’re politicized.

“We’ve had to toughen our skin over the years and remind ourselves that really it’s about human lives,” she said. “It’s not about a talking point.”

“There is no invasion,” she said. “There is a humanitarian situation that is not unprecedented. We have managed as border communities, as Americans, flows of migrants before, and we will continue to in the future.”

Ms. Peña said she planned to vote to re-elect President Biden. “I would love to see more options in the national landscape that are more nuanced,” she said. “I’ve voted Democrat pretty much my whole life. I will probably continue to do so unless another option, viable option, presents itself.”

Heather Carlson, 39, a manager with Albertson’s in Denver, said her views of the border had changed in the last year, as she has worked with more migrants in the city through her church.

A year ago, she viewed it simply: “We need to close the borders, we are at capacity, we can’t handle any more coming in,” she said. “After seeing what these people have to go through, it’s hard, it’s difficult, and that’s where my concern is.”

The vast majority of immigrants, she said, simply want to work.

“They want to do these things the right way, but they can’t,” she said. “How are we setting them up to succeed? It should not be that hard.”

Her views began to change after listening to a Venezuelan mother speak about her trip to the United States at a church town hall. As a mother of six, Ms. Carlson said, she was moved.

“If you are in a position where your best option is to walk eight months — I just can’t imagine having to do that and start over,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine my kids sleeping on a street, and that was their only option, and that was better than what they were.”

Wade Olson, 48, who lives in Sunrise, Minn., a rural town near the Wisconsin border, said he feared the United States was absorbing too many people, too quickly.

“It’s getting so populated you can’t breathe or move around,” said Mr. Olson, who works paving roads and considers himself a political independent.

Mr. Olson said he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but had soured on him by 2020 and wrote in former Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota to lodge a protest vote. Mr. Olson faulted Mr. Biden for the surge in border crossings, calling his decision to roll back several of his predecessor’s policies a big mistake.

“It seems like all other countries have an orderly way of getting people into their country and ours is just chaos,” Mr. Olson said.

Mr. Olson said his preferred news outlet was NewsNation, a right-wing cable news network. He said he intended to vote for Nikki Haley in the Republican primary on Tuesday and for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in November.

His concerns about the border notwithstanding, Mr. Olson said he valued the contributions of immigrants. His wife was born in Guyana, a South American nation, and several people he works alongside laying asphalt are hard-working foreigners, he said. Roughly 9 percent of Minnesota residents are immigrants.

“A lot of the jobs they do, you can’t get white people to do those sorts of jobs,” he said.

Linda Wang, 70, immigrated from China 30 years ago and took all kinds of jobs to earn enough money to pay for graduate school. “I started from zero,” she said.

Now, she worries that other immigrants are not willing or able to do the same to gain their footing in the country. “People have no job, no place to live, then we have more crime, more broken things, so it’s kind of scary,” she said.

While she has typically voted for Democrats in past elections, she said she was unsure whether she would support Mr. Biden again this year.

Last summer, she said, she saw the busloads of migrants arriving in Denver from Texas. Many found shelter in a hotel near the highway for a few weeks. “Then they were kicked out,” she said, and they moved into tents on the street. “I am not so happy to see those.”

Her liquor and convenience store near downtown Denver has been broken into several times since then, she said, and she has wondered whether the new immigrants are to blame.

She wants the border closed, she said. “People don’t care, they don’t even have a visa, they can just jump in and stay,” she said. “I really don’t like so many people coming. And I don’t mean those people are bad people, but you should come the right way. “

New immigrants, she said, should have to prove they have something to offer in the United States. “You have to do something, not just walking, climbing and staying,” she said. “I don’t want them in my corner.”

Nicola Huffstickler, 36, a public library aide, said she was mostly worried that leaders in the United States are not doing enough to help immigrants.

“I’m concerned about people living on the streets and not getting the care and the facilitation that they need to come into our country — especially when folks are escaping war-ridden countries,” Ms. Huffstickler said. “Politicians are using the border as a circus act right now. I believe that we just need to have people posted up at the border to help those who want to come in.”

“It makes sense why people want to come here and escape war, you know, and gangs and all kinds of crazy violence in their own countries,” she added. And she sees it as the job of any average citizen to “help them get acclimated into our country.”

In her job at the Denver Public Library, she often helps people who are filling out immigration paperwork or looking for employment. If she had the means to do so, she said, she would cook meals for hundreds of migrants she now sees living on the street.

“It just hurts my heart,” she said. “You know, they came from a country where they had a house and now they’re living on the streets. I feel like we’re just putting a Band-Aid on a huge situation and not doing the actual work that needs to be done.”

Michael Ciaglo contributed reporting.

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