Why These Trump Voters Are Sticking Up For An Undocumented Neighbor

It's consistent with their conservative values.
03/21/2017 11:25 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2017
Pete Buttigieg

This week, a conservative community in my part of Indiana will lose one of its model residents.

Roberto Beristain came to America without permission 17 years ago, fell in love, and became a cook at a family restaurant. Living the American dream, he wound up owning one of the restaurants he had worked in, buying it from his wife’s Greek-American family after saving up for years. Taking in her son as his own, he had three more children with her, a 9th-grader, an 8th-grader, and an eight-year-old.

Aiming to do the right thing, his wife tells me, he sought a green card, obtained a Social Security card, a work permit, and a driver’s license, and checked in regularly with ICE, all while working and paying taxes here without so much as a traffic ticket against his name. It was during one of these check-ins, a few weeks ago, that he was unexpectedly detained and confronted with a 16-year-old deportation order. He is now in detention in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where his wife is allowed to see him for half an hour a week. After wading through a confusing legal gray zone and pleading to have his case opened for review, last week the family received the devastating news that he will be deported this coming Friday.

Meeting with his family and friends at his business, Eddie’s Steak Shed, in the town of Granger, I am struck by many things: the tenderness of his wife’s love for him, the innocence of his four American children (especially the teenage daughters who are now being taunted at school over his case), the loyalty of his 20 employees, and the pride and affection of his gathered friends and acquaintances as they rally to show their support.

Tearing apart a community, a business, and a family will make America worse off, every time.

But most striking of all is how many of the people now sticking up for Roberto are politically conservative. These are small-town Indiana residents, veterans and grandparents who come to his restaurant after Mass or Rotary. They vigorously defend him as a man they are proud to call a friend. And the more I think about it, the more clearly it is consistent with their conservative values that they stand up for Roberto.

Think of the favorite themes of conservatism: hard work, small business ownership, suspicion of overbearing government, and support for family. Each one of those themes is at stake here—and each is insulted by the prospect of a person like Roberto being ripped away from his business, friends, wife, and children, by a federal agency.

Some here say he should never have gotten into this situation. That he should have come into this country legally. Of course. But once he was here, in love and raising a family, did the system give him any better option than to do what he did, which was to keep his head down, work extremely hard, put his kids through school, support his wife, break no laws, and present himself regularly to ICE officials to check in?

Polls show that most conservatives expect that there should be some path for people like Roberto to get right with the law, some way for people like him to hold his family together by paying a penalty and obtaining citizenship. Indeed, the last immigration reform to create such a path, in 1986, was brought to us by Ronald Reagan.

As one supporter wrote me, “I voted for President Trump because I believed he was promising to develop a process to remove the illegal immigrants that have done acts against the United States,” meaning serious crimes. “I also believed that he was going to correct the red tape that blocks the immigrants from becoming a citizen that have been a positive contributor to the way of life here,” like Roberto.

On this National Immigration Day of Action, it is worth remembering that it’s not just Americans in New York or Los Angeles who believe that we need a more humane and rational system. People in communities like Granger, Indiana are rarely heard from on cable networks. But they too believe it is wrong to deport friends and neighbors who do no harm and much good. Plenty of people in red states believe we must reject the politics of scapegoating and its devastating impact on millions—including American citizens like Roberto’s wife and children.

It is a good day to remember that those of us who believe in a great America need to ask tough questions about policies that amount to a solution in search of a problem. Tearing apart a community, a business, and a family will make America worse off, every time. Americans of good will, regardless of party, are demanding a better way.

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