“If the economy were great, if we were all flush with cash and there were lots of jobs, people wouldn’t care about illegal immigrants, except for national security,” said Bolen, who chairs Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign in the county, and whose wife supports Donald Trump — the two most outspoken Republican candidates on immigration issues.
Bolen’s comments underscore the intersection of economic anxiety and anti-immigration fervor in South Carolina, which holds a GOP presidential primary on Saturday. Trump is heavily favored to triumph, as Cruz (Tex.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) fight for a second place finish.
While academic studies suggest a connection between economic conditions and attitudes toward immigration, nobody can say with certainty whether any given voter in South Carolina is responding to economic anxiety with an anti-immigration sentiment. Still, polling and economic data, along with interviews with experts and voters, suggest a strong overlap between the two.
Immigration is “sort of a surrogate,” said Scott Huffman, a pollster at Winthrop University, based in Rock Hill, S.C. “It’s a way to channel anger over a lot of disparate things."
“It’s the kind of people who feel like they’re losing power, they have been since Obama came in,” he said. “They’re losing efficacy, the sense that they control things. You have to blame somebody. And immigration, especially immigration from Mexico, has become the target for that.”
These connections are clearest among voters who support Trump, and still evident if less so among Cruz backers. More specifically, these candidates draw disproportionate support from Americans who both have struggled in today’s economy and who express a preference for tough immigration measures.
Polls show that Trump is running strongest among voters — both in South Carolina and nationwide — without college degrees, a disadvantaged group that has seen their economic prospects slide in recent decades. These voters are significantly more apt to support deporting undocumented immigrants, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling.
Trump also draws a larger share of support from Republicans who say they are very worried about their financial future, compared to those who are less worried or not worried at all, according to the Post-ABC poll. Cruz also does well among these groups as well.
The Winthrop poll finds more than 6 in 10 Republican voters in South Carolina believe immigrants — all immigrants, not just those in the country illegally — take jobs away from U.S. citizens. Among Republicans who back Trump, that share rises to nearly 3 in 4 voters.
South Carolina offers a microcosm of how working-class stagnation may be driving anti-immigration sentiment. Workers without college degrees have struggled to get ahead as South Carolina has remade its economy from one heavily reliant on textiles and agriculture to higher-end manufacturing.
The textile jobs, which involved low-skilled manufacturing, have largely moved overseas, while immigrants have increased their presence in agriculture and in the state’s construction industry.
Several economists and political observers here say the backlash to immigrants among working-class white parallels the backlash to outsourced jobs and the unevenly shared spoils of the state’s evolving economy.
South Carolina’s recent growth has been driven by higher-end factories often owned by foreign firms, and has been concentrated along an interstate corridor that bypasses many less-educated workers and their communities.
The benefits of the state’s economic transformation have not been “equally distributed across all members of the population,” said Scott L. Baier, an economist at Clemson University in Greenville, S.C.
“For those individuals who are economically distressed, they likely feel that they are competing for jobs and they are likely to oppose more liberal immigration policies,” he said. “While immigrants may be a small part of the labor force in South Carolina, it may not take a lot of additional workers in an industry or an occupation to impact wages or wage growth."
In Lexington County, economic growth has kept the unemployment rate lower than the nation’s, and there are still relatively few immigrants: 13,000 people in a county of 277,000. But statistics show flashing signs of economic distress.
The typical household in the county earned 5 percent less in 2014 than it did before the recession hit, and 10 percent less than it did in 2000, after adjusting for inflation. Only 1 in 4 residents has earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Real median incomes are down for all American workers since 2000, Census stats show, but they are down more than twice as much for workers that did not finish college, compared to those who did. Nearly twice as many county residents received federal food assistance in 2013 as did in 2007.
In the immigration discussion, welfare concerns loom large.
In several interviews with working-class voters across the state — who often declined to give their names for publication — South Carolina conservatives said they were concerned that immigrants, in particular, draw a lot of support from taxpayers.
Academic studies have found evidence that opposition to immigration rises when economic conditions worsen. But many studies find that concerns about welfare use significantly affect immigration attitudes, along with racial prejudice.
As Bolen, the Lexington County lawyer, puts it: “Immigrants as a general rule, would be a net positive for the economy, if they weren’t able to access so many government programs that are bad for the economy.”
The Center for Immigration Statistics, which advocates for stricter immigration policies, said in a report last fall that 3 in 5 U.S. households headed by an immigrant illegally used one or more government assistance programs in the previous year, largely due to their children accessing free school lunch or health care through Medicaid.
Other groups, including the libertarian Cato Institute, have challenged those numbers. Federal law prohibits immigrants who remain in the country illegally from receiving many aid programs available to lower-income natives. But immigrants here legally have access to some programs, and so do the American-born children of immigrants.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Statistics, said his organization’s findings confirm the anecdotes that many Americans, particularly conservatives, hear from people they know. Say, a sister-in-law who works checkout at a convenience store, who talks about Spanish speakers frequently paying for items with government-issued EBT cards.
“It’s not the kind of thing that makes it into more mainstream media, but it doesn’t matter,” Camarota said. “Talk radio will talk about it, but also, that sister in law is the more important source. She has an innate credibility.”
Pro-immigrant advocacy groups in South Carolina say they are constantly fighting negative perceptions about immigrants, particularly the idea that they draw large amounts of welfare.
“We hear people say that all time. We spend a lot of time educating people,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “If you’re not documented, you’re not going to get anything, that’s bottom line. You’re not going to get Medicaid, you’re not going to get (food assistance), you’re not going to get cash assistance, anything.”
Across the state, she said, “We’ve got a lot of poor people. People are working, but they’re working harder, they’re working for less, and they’re struggling.”
That is true for immigrants, she said, and for natives, too.
Polling editor Scott Clement contributed.