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How the Lowcountry learned to love immigrants

Like more than 40 percent of South Carolinians, I wasn’t born here: I grew up in rural New York, served aboard a Navy destroyer during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and had a long career as a U.S. Customs agent and public health analyst with the Department of Health and Human Services. Now, I’m a retiree, enjoying the sun and low taxes here in South Carolina’s Lowcountry — and thanks to people like me, our state’s population is growing and our economy is booming.

Of course, there’s a catch: by definition, retirees aren’t of working age, so we need young people to design and build our homes, grow and serve our food, mow our lawns, and work as doctors and nurses in our hospitals. Increasingly, that vital work is also being done by people who weren’t born here: Hispanic immigrants. The Palmetto State has the fastest-growing Latino population of any state in the country, according to the last census. Statewide, one in 20 people is Latino; in Bluffton, the rate is almost one in five.

The Lowcountry is still a solidly conservative corner of a solidly red state, and many people fret about the way diversity is changing our community. But the more people interact with immigrants, and see the economic benefits they bring, the more their concerns have given way to sympathy, compassion, and even gratitude. It’s part of the reason why this month, Democrat Joe Cunningham became the congressman for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

During the campaign, Cunningham’s Republican rival, Katie Arrington, did her best to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment, running attack ads that equated hard-working immigrants with MS-13 gangbangers, and criticizing her rival for campaigning with the “sanctuary city mayor of LA” Eric Garcetti. Lowcountry voters saw these ads for what they were: an attempt to stir up racial animus, and distract them from Cunningham’s compelling messages on issues like health care and offshore drilling.

For his part, Cunningham combined a savvy focus on kitchen-table issues with a clear message on immigration, including a call for secure borders and a plan for giving our state’s 6,000 young Dreamers a path toward legal status. That resonated with voters far more than Arrington’s crude anti-immigrant messaging. Cunningham won by more than 4,000 votes, turning the 1st District blue for the first time in 37 years.

Cunningham’s victory was a reminder that here in the Lowcountry, immigration really is a local issue. Thanks to our immigrant neighbors, construction companies have the workers they need, and so do our farms, factories, and restaurants. According to New American Economy, almost a third of farm workers and almost one in six construction workers in the state’s 1st Congressional District are foreign-born. And those hard-working immigrants are also taxpayers, pouring $341.9 million into federal, state, and local government coffers each year.

Many American-born voters know that we need immigrant workers to keep our economy ticking, and that means a path forward for the many hardworking immigrants who lack proper documentation and for the hundreds of thousands of young Dreamers growing up without any stable future. Increasingly, they see how deeply embedded in community life our immigrant neighbors have become. Go shopping, and you’ll see Hispanic people filling their carts alongside yours, helping support local businesses. Visit Hilton Head’s Holy Family Catholic Church or St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll see hundreds of Hispanic people packing the pews for vibrant Spanish-language services.

The Lowcountry remains a conservative region, and Cunningham will need to work to represent the views of everyone as he settles into his role as our representative. Along the way, I hope that Joe will keep listening to his constituents, including the 3,000 new Hispanic and Asian-American voters that our district has added since 2016. Celebrating the valuable contributions that immigrants bring and building bridges between all South Carolinians — from long-time residents to newcomers — is both politically pragmatic and necessary to keep the Palmetto State thriving.

George Kanuck of Bluffton is co-chair of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition.

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