In New Hampshire, far from Mexico border, immigration a major concern to voters

People in New Hampshire live nearly 2,400 miles from El Paso, Texas, one of the busiest crossings on America's Southern border. And it's only home to about 10,000 people living illegally in the U.S. — a far cry from states like California, Texas or Florida.

Yet, illegal immigration is a paramount concern to New Hampshire voters, and Republican presidential candidates are being faced with tough questions from voters in this small, mostly white, state on how they will handle the issue if elected.

While GOP front-runner Donald Trump has called for a wall across the Southern border, many voters in this early voting state are searching for more in-depth solutions to the country's immigration shortfalls. They characterize their concerns with illegal immigration as a case of fundamental fairness combined with national security or economic concerns.

Of the 1.3 million people living in New Hampshire, roughly 94 percent of them are white, according to 2014 census data. Just 3.3 percent of the state's population is Hispanic or Latino, compared to 17 percent nationwide, while about 5 percent is foreign-born, compared to 13 percent nationally. New Hampshire voters will head to the polls Feb. 9 for the country's second primary season contest.

But Bob Belanger, a voter from Brookline who recently challenged Marco Rubio on the subject during a campaign stop, said immigration concerns among New Hampshire residents do not equate to xenophobia.

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"People tend to think that we are anti-immigrant, but we're not," he said. "We are all immigrants, for crying out loud. We just want to know who's coming in the front door of our country. That's all."

Belanger, 57, said he's proud of his immigrant family's heritage. He carries around his grandfather's green card. His grandfather was Canadian; his grandmother was originally from Ireland. He works for a New Hampshire-based manufacturing firm that builds piping for companies all over the region and the world, and says immigration personally affects him from an economic perspective.

He believes those working here illegally drive down wages and benefits.

"Whether it's roofers or whether it's welders, it affects me even when they are in Texas or California," he said. "We are in a global economy."

Belanger, like many voters here, said he's looking for a more substantial solution than building a wall and deporting everyone who lives here illegally, as Trump proposes.

Speaking with Rubio last week, Belanger said he's concerned about any immigration reform that looks similar to a plan passed in 1986 under Ronald Reagan. Back then, nearly 3 million people were granted legal status, but the federal government failed, as promised in the law, to crack down on employers who hired illegals or to secure the border.

"We were sold a bill of goods where we allowed amnesty for millions of people and then we secured the border," he told Rubio. "The Congress never secured the borders."

Rubio, Florida's junior senator, agreed and emphasized his opposition to granting legal status to people already in the U.S. before securing the border. "Until you prove to people that illegal immigration is under control, not just pass a law, until they actually see it's working, they are not going to support doing anything for the people here illegally," he said.

Rubio has made immigration a central part of his stump speech, but other candidates including Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are frequently asked about border security and immigration reform in town hall meetings. John Kasich was recently asked by a voter in Concord what he would do to "deport" everyone living here illegally. His answer: "I wouldn't."

Cindy Coutu, a Bedford voter, said immigration is one of her top three concerns, partly for security reasons, partly due to fairness.

"We have people that are leaching off of our system," she said. "People that are here illegally are receiving benefits without having worked for it, that's bothersome to me."

Regardless of voters' reasons for seeing immigration as a top concern, former state Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen said the state's low level of diversity makes it an "abstract" issue for many voters here.

Because voters here don't confront immigration on a daily basis, Cullen said their views on the issue may run along ideological or theoretical lines. Cullen now leads a non-profit that promotes immigration reform, called Americans by Choice.

"The fact is, in New Hampshire you don't see large Spanish-speaking populations," he said. "And I think that matters."

But that doesn't prevent some New Hampshire voters from expressing concerns.

Kathy and Brian Hybsch, of Auburn, said immigration has become their "number 1" issue, primarily for national security reasons.

After terrorist attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California, many of the Republican candidates began framing immigration as, first and foremost, an issue of security. Most of the Republican candidates support a temporary halt on refugees coming into the country from Syria, and Trump took the calls further, saying the country should stop letting in Muslims.

Kathy, who said she is a Trump supporter, said she doesn't consider herself anti-immigrant but agrees with the proposals.

"It might not have made sense 20 years ago," she said, "but it's not 20 years ago."

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