CHARLESTON, S.C. – On a humid, rainy winter morning on the outskirts of Charleston, Shirley Juarez is setting tables, laying out doormats and getting ready for another weekday lunch rush at El Chapin, a Central American restaurant here. It’s a taste of home for the Guatemala native who came to the United States in 2009.
But her life is no longer what it was a year ago. Her sister is now gone, deported back to Guatemala after South Carolina passed one of the country’s strictest immigration laws. Left behind is her sister’s young son.
“I felt hopeless when they deported her,” she said in Spanish. “They didn’t give her the chance to stay.”
The deportation occurred after South Carolina last year became one of a handful of states to pass controversial laws cracking down on illegal immigration. The law enabled police to stop anyone suspected of being in the country illegally to check for proof of citizenship. While the Department of Justice later sued the state – blocking parts of the law from implementation – the move came too late for Juarez’s sister.
With the state’s Republican primary set for Saturday, the immigration issue is once again on people’s minds here. South Carolina was the state with the biggest Hispanic population growth in the past decade, a jump of nearly 150 percent, according to the 2010 census. Thus far, however, most of the GOP candidates have done little to court the Hispanic vote.
“I don’t think the politicians – and in particular the Republicans – are doing anything to win the vote of the Latino population,” Myriam Torres, a professor at the University of South Carolina, said in an interview this week. “They have this idea or this prejudice – I don’t know which – that the Latino population in South Carolina is a group that doesn’t vote and that is wrong.”
Nivardo Vivar, for instance, is a Hispanic student at the College of Charleston who will vote for the first time in a presidential election this year.
“Even though in the past the youth vote hasn’t been that strong, now we’re realizing that our future isn’t as clear as we had thought,” Vivar said. “It was like a shock, I think, for us to realize that maybe things weren’t becoming the way we had imagined, so now we want to do something about it.”
While Latinos traditionally vote Democratic, concern about the country’s lackluster economic recovery and dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s inaction on immigration reform could have given Republicans an opening this year to woo Latino voters.
Indeed, most of the candidates have taken hard-line stances on immigration. Only days before the Iowa caucuses, front-runner Mitt Romney said that, as president, he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
Earlier this week in New York City, Romney’s stance landed him amid a confrontation with a Peruvian immigrant named Lucy Allain, who now has a 4.0 GPA at college, but no path to citizenship here. “I’m undocumented,” she said to Romney. “I want to know, then, why are you not supporting my dream?”
“Because if someone comes here illegally…,” the former Massachusetts governor responded.
“But I didn’t come here illegally,” Lucy said. “And I have a 4.0 GPA.”
In addition, Romney lately has touted the backing of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed the state’s immigration law, and he has publicized the endorsement of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who helped author the controversial laws enacted in other states such as Alabama and Arizona. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the former Republican candidate, said days before he dropped out of the race that in the wake of the federal government’s intervention in the South Carolina immigration law case, there now exists a “state of war” between the two sides.
In a state where more than five percent is Hispanic, the dismay, the fear and the frustration that immigrants feel is now evident.
As the clock ticked toward noon, Juarez got back to work. Despite the claims of some anti-immigration politicians who contend that immigrants like Juarez are taking Americans’ jobs, she argued that nothing could be further from the truth.
“If we are given the chance to work – no matter when, no matter what hour – we work. We’re not taking anyone’s jobs,” she said with an exasperated sigh.
Upon hearing of Juarez’s story – the family torn apart, the child left behind- Gov. Haley Thursday said, “I am the daughter of immigrant parents and I will tell you they took the time, they paid the price to come here legally. We are a country of immigrants, but more importantly we are a country of laws. When we give up being a country of laws, we give up everything this country was founded on.
“There are numerous stories of people who came here illegally that have sad stories about having to go back, but when we start giving up being that country of laws, we’re going to all fall apart. We’ve got to continue that. And our illegal immigration law was to protect everybody in South Carolina – employers, citizens – to make sure we have the people here that deserve to be here. And we want legal immigrants. We just don’t want illegal immigrants.”
Days before South Carolina voters head to the polls, the race for the Palmetto State now appears to be tightening. An 18-percent lead for Romney two weeks ago has been cut to 10 percent in the latest CNN poll, making Saturday’s primary a potential nail-biter.
After all, the winner of South Carolina’s primary has gone on to become the Republican Party’s nominee in the past 30 years. For people like Juarez, saying there is a lot at stake in these elections is an understatement . Just ask her young cousin, whose mother is now thousands of miles away back in Guatemala.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.