STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — On one level, this Detroit suburb where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is scheduled to appear Sunday evening makes plenty of political logic.
It’s the hub of Macomb County, with a white working-class electorate that in 1980 gave rise to the term “Reagan Democrats.” Trump, it would seem, is looking for a boost from their economic disaffection and frustration with the effects of foreign trade.
Yet Sterling Heights is also synonymous in these parts with religious tensions between one of the state’s fastest-growing Muslim populations and a powerful community of Chaldean Christians, a Catholic denomination that includes thousands of people who have fled Iraq over the past decade.
All of it makes Sterling Heights, the state’s fourth most populous city, a reminder of what the Trump candidacy has meant for jittery Muslim Americans. The city is currently facing a federal civil rights lawsuit over its planning commission’s rejection last year of a proposed mosque, which would have been the third built here since 2011.
“It is unnerving to have him here, so close,” Syed Razvi said as he left Saturday evening prayers at the American Muslim Diversity Association mosque. “Before Trump’s candidacy, if you meet anybody around here, no problem. Now everybody’s like: ‘Oh, you’re a Muslim. We need to stay away from them.’ ”
Trump’s appearance in Sterling Heights is part of a surprising level of attention being paid to the Wolverine State in the final throes of the 2016 presidential race. Both campaigns say the polls have tightened, and both are spending an outsize amount of time here as a result.
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A Detroit Free Press poll published Friday had Clinton at 42 percent to Trump’s 38 percent, with Trump gaining four points in the past two weeks.
In addition to his scheduled appearance in Sterling Heights, Trump has also scheduled a rally in Grand Rapids on Monday. Also on the GOP side, Eric and Ivanka Trump; Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence; and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin all popped in over the past few days.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who spoke in Detroit on Friday, is due in Grand Rapids on Monday. Former president Bill Clinton appears Sunday in Lansing. President Obama is scheduled to rally minority voters, which Democrats worry may not turn out in the numbers they need; he will appear in Ann Arbor on Monday, too.
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“To rile up his base on one of the last days before the election, I would say Macomb County is a great place for Trump to go,” said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “He did very well in the primary in Macomb County, and his support there has really never wavered. He’s really tapped in to the anger there with white voters.”
Sterling Heights, about 18 miles north of downtown Detroit, has long been a magnet for ethnic immigrants from various war-ravaged or oppressed regions. A century ago, many Polish immigrants set down roots here; waves of Albanians, Serbian and Macedonian emigres joined them in the 1980s and 1990s. Chaldean migrations have occurred in spurts since the 1970s. They escalated in the past decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian violence from al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State that targeted non-Muslim minorities.
Chaldeans make up roughly 5 percent of Sterling Heights’s population of 130,000, and the Detroit area in general is home to the most Chaldeans in the United States, according to the 2010 Census. The Detroit suburbs are also well-known for having the nation’s biggest population of Arab Americans and Muslims.
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“There’s a very strong anti-Muslim sentiment among the old-time residents and the Christian refugees from the Middle East in Sterling Heights,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s not just a sentiment coming from Republicans. It emanates the Reagan Democrat-type crowd.”
Sterling Heights Mayor Mike Taylor (R) took umbrage at that notion, questioning the premise that Trump is actually anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim.
“There have been comments made by the Trump campaign regarding Muslims, and I understand what Muslims are concerned about with a Donald Trump presidency,” Taylor said. “It’s been blown out of proportion. We need to be sure that the refugees are properly vetted and that they have the country’s best interest. I’m confident the Muslims in Sterling Heights have the country’s best interest at heart.”
Perhaps, but in the parking lot at Holy Martyrs Chaldean Catholic Church on Saturday, it was not difficult to find anti-Muslim sentiment as the basis for many worshipers’ support of Trump. The harshest of them, including a woman who said Muslims “want to take over and kill us all,” refused to give their names.
A group of 12-year-olds emerging from a children’s Mass were giddy when told that Trump would be visiting the Freedom Hill Amphitheater six miles away.
“Most of us want Donald Trump to win because he can defeat ISIS and let us go back to our countries,” said Ray Poles, whose family emigrated from Iraq in the past year. “I hope we can go see him.”