Terrorism and immigration have become the biggest issues in the Republican presidential primaries, even in states like New Hampshire, where there are relatively few foreign-born residents but yet where immigration has always been a concern.
Terrorism Concerns Add To Immigration Debate
In a cavernous auto repair bay in Exeter, Renee Plummer stood before a crowd waiting to hear from Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. A Republican activist from Portsmouth, Plummer said there’s really only one issue for her in this campaign.
“My question always is, 'How are you going to protect me, my family, my friends, my community from ISIS?' I want to know what you are going to do because energy, the economy, education ... yes it is important, climate change is important, but it’s not as important as if they are going to come to attack us," Plummer said.
That pretty much sums up the sentiment among many likely Republican voters in the Granite State, according to the polls. And the candidates are responding in kind, including Christie at the Exeter event.
"When I’m president of the United States, homeland security will be our first priority," Christie told the crowd, "for you to be safe in your homes and your schools again."
That’s almost tame when compared to the words of other Republican presidential candidates, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
"If I'm elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS," Cruz said earlier this month. "We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we will find out."
And then there's Donald Trump, who recently called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
Concerns about terrorism are adding to more general concerns about immigration — about competition for jobs and demands on taxpayer-supported benefit programs.
Those economic issues are worrying Kingston residents Kim Wiles, a retired electrician, and his wife Cynthia, who’s in retail. They were at the Exeter Christie event.
“We just need more checks and balances on these people coming in," Kim Wiles said.
"There’s too many people in this country that came here and they’re not working to help us and they’re just asking for handouts," Cynthia Wiles said. "Years ago when people came here they learned the language, they learned to work, they took care of their families without somebody else taking care of them.”
Fears About Economic Competition
Steve Duprey is one of New Hampshire’s representatives on the board of the Republican National Committee. He also trains and employs immigrants to work at hotels he runs. He says he gets it, that there’s anger over lax border security and illegal immigration, but still he’s surprised by how much traction the issues have in New Hampshire.
“We aren't seeing job displacement because there are American workers who don’t want to pick vegetables like you see down in Texas and the west and California," Duprey said. "So, I mean, it’s not like it’s a big problem here."
A recent report by the nonpartisan New Hampshire Center for Policy Studies shows that foreign-born residents’ overall influence on the state’s economy is slightly outsized. That is, while they make up 5.7 percent of the population, they hold 6.2 percent of the jobs, and take home about 6.4 percent of wages.
They also are more likely to live at or near the poverty line than U.S.-born residents in New Hampshire, account for 7 percent of demand for food stamps in the state, and are more likely to lack a high school degree.
Foreign-born workers are dominating a few job sectors that do not require a high level of education — such as food prep and food service. But the authors of the study argue that the overall number of immigrants in New Hampshire is just too small to have a big negative impact in the economy, and that in some ways they make it more robust.
Still, fears about economic competition are part of what’s driving the debate.
“There is a large number of people with less amount of formal education who are under a lot of economic pressure and have been for quite some time," said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank. He acknowledges that immigrants don’t pose a big economic threat in New Hampshire.
Olsen says the effects of immigration don’t have to be local to affect voter sentiment and can be magnified in the minds of middle- and low-income white Americans who’ve been losing the most economic ground over the last decade.
"And they see immigration as how Americans are favoring foreigners in the competition for jobs over them and they see global trade as another indication of how American elites, in particular, are favoring foreigners over them," Olsen said. "And they gravitate towards candidates who say, 'It doesn’t have to be that way.' "
Candidates such as Trump and Cruz, who New Hampshire polls show draw their strongest support from voters with lower levels of education. The same group ranks immigration and terrorism higher on its list of threats than does any other group.
Olsen says the Paris and San Bernardino attacks linked immigration and safety in a way that’s unique to this presidential cycle. "Then not only is your world-view true," Olsen said, "but it becomes, 'Oh my god, not only can they take my jobs but they can shoot my kids.' "
But Republicans who capitalize on these fears are taking a risk: alienating voters who might otherwise be open to their views.
'I’m Feeling Ostracized'
At a big warehouse in Nashua, Nadia Alawa and volunteers for the relief group she runs, NuDay Syria, are collecting tons of food, clothing and some big medical equipment — a shipping container’s worth that will soon be on its way to refugee camps in western Syria or Turkey.
A naturalized American citizen of Syrian and Dutch descent, Alawa says she had considered voting Republican in the state’s presidential primary.
"But that all changed a few months ago," she said. "So unless something revolutionary happens I will definitely not be voting Republican this time around."
Alawa, who wears the Muslim head covering called the hijab, says her attitude changed as Trump pushed immigration to the top of the GOP agenda.
“In terms of neighbors or social groups or going to school activities, I’m feeling ostracized,” Alawa said.
Attitudes toward Alawa and her children have shifted even more since the most recent terror attacks, she says. And now she’s the one who’s feeling less safe.
This segment aired on December 24, 2015.