DILLON, S.C.—The afternoon sun was just starting to dip behind the Sombrero Observation Tower, but it was still warm under the eaves of the Sombrero Restaurant across the street, and still bright enough to keep bleaching the 6-foot-tall pink flamingos. “Good Vibrations” gurgled softly from a speaker somewhere. Inside Pedro’s Mexico Shop East, weary travelers were picking over rack after rack of souvenirs: sombreros with enough rhinestones to incite the envy of any Tex-Mex restaurant’s mariachi band; brightly colored animal figurines wearing ponchos; and about a dozen different coozie options, a few of which didn’t even employ offensive ethnic stereotypes.
In short, it seemed like the perfect place to talk about illegal immigration.
What to do about border security, and how to deal with the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally, has been one of the most important issues in the presidential race for months, but it’s been a particular focus in the South Carolina Republican primary. Voters at a couple of rallies I covered this week had told me that stricter immigration controls were important to them, but those didn’t seem like the best places to measure public opinion. The people who come to presidential rallies tend to be better informed and more politically opinionated than the average citizens. What about the rest of the electorate?
So on my way out of the Palmetto State, I pulled off Interstate 95 at South of the Border, one of the Eastern Seaboard’s most flamboyant tourist traps. I’d driven by before but had never stopped. True to the name, South of the Border sits immediately adjacent to the state line—the sign welcoming you to Robeson County, North Carolina, is on the ramp back onto to 95 North—where it’s been since 1950. Originally it sprang up to provide beer for residents of dry Robeson County, but now it seems to deal mostly in nachos and fireworks and trinkets and cheap stays in a motel.
South of the Border is tough to miss, because there are miles and miles of signs in either direction alerting motorists that they’re approaching it. The famous billboards give a pretty good sense of the spot’s flavor. To be specific, that flavor is “antiquatedly racist.” Imagine all of the kitsch of classic Route 66, compressed into about a half-mile, and centered around a single, stereotyped theme. South of the Border’s mascot is “Pedro,” who’s sort of like a human Speedy Gonzales—a cartoon figure with a white tunic, enormous sombrero, and thick accent, but also an exaggerated Emiliano Zapata mustache. Sample billboards include “Give Pedro the business,” “Sommetheeng deeferent!,” and “¡Caliente!,” as well as some more confusing ones (“Virgin Sturgeon and Unused Bagels,” “Shalom!,”) and a few atrocious puns: “You Never Sausage a Place.” (Say it aloud.)
I began my quest to find what the ordinary South Carolina voter thinks about immigration beneath a 50-foot tall Pedro who held a huge “South of the Border” sign, his legs spread into an arch.
The problems with this approach became quickly apparent. One was that despite the bustle and crowds suggested by the many billboards, South of the Border was largely deserted. Perhaps late afternoon on a Tuesday in February isn’t peak time, but I saw no more than 25 people during the hour I spent loitering there, including security guards. A second was that most of the people at South of the Border aren’t actually South Carolinians. One of the bumperstickers for sale said, “Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere,” and it wasn’t wrong. The people I spoke with were passing through on long hauls along 95, sporting the 1,000-yard stares drivers develop on road trips.
I found a quartet shuffling seats in the parking lot between Pedro’s Leather Shop and Pedro’s Ice Cream Fiesta. They were on their way home to Raleigh and told me they’d been to South of the Border four times in the last week. There is a generational split over immigration in the United States, and like many younger people, they favored a liberal immigration policy. “I don’t care—live wherever you want to,” said Kelly Eatmon. “If they want to be here, they should live over here,” agreed Bailey McKever. “Everyone should be treated like everyone else,” chimed in Reese Parrilla.
But what else would you expect from a group of young people who were preparing to travel across the border to the north?
Crossing the cracked pavement of U.S. 301’s four lanes, I talked to an older gentleman who would only give his name as Donald. (In his defense, I was a weirdo wandering around a deserted tourist trap with a notepad, claiming to be a magazine reporter.) “There are too many people in the country who we don’t know their identities,” he said. Donald’s main concern was security, not economics. “I realize it’s going to be hard to send them all home,” he said of undocumented immigrants, but he worried about terrorists coming into the country. “I tell you what, I think we should shut the border,” he told me. Then he and his wife left to head north across the border toward home in Pennsylvania.
I found Bianca Percio minding her daughter, who was excitedly clambering over a life-size fiberglass alligator outside Pedro’s Myrtle Beach Shop (only 82 miles from Myrtle Beach!). Percio exuded more passion about the topic than anyone else at South of the Border and strongly wanted a more welcoming policy. Part of the problem, she said, was the sense that many immigrants received undue government benefits when they arrived, but she said that made sense as a way to help people establish themselves in a new country: “They have been working their entire lives for nothing!”
She laid the blame for the overheated discourse at the feet of political leaders like Donald Trump. “They make it sound like they’re trash, like they’re the scum of the earth,” Percio said. “We all just want better lives for our children. Unfortunately, the politicians who present themselves as speaking for the nation, we tend to believe them.”
As I finished talking to her, the place somehow seemed even more deserted. I impatiently bounced between benches, hoping to intercept people headed in for a bite to eat or a campy T-shirt. Finally, I gave up and strolled into the gift shop, seeking human company and hoping I might track down the Spanish-speaking family I’d seen at a distance. Sadly, I didn’t find them inside, wandering around the shelves of shot glasses and novelty mugs. A couple approached the register, the man eager to head across 301 to Fort Pedro, the fireworks stand. He shelled out for his companion’s hat, underneath a sign listing “Pedro’s Return Policy” (exchanges only). He asked the clerk whether Pedro was around. “Naw, he ain’t here,” she chuckled sleepily.
Back outside, I squinted in the sunlight, which was getting harsher as it got lower. A few more people passed by but declined to talk to me, saying they didn’t know enough about the topic. No one seemed to see any irony in trying to discuss illegal immigration in the midst of 50-foot-tall monuments of racist Mexican kitsch, at a place whose name is a pun on the Mexican-U.S. border. Or if they did, they didn’t seem amused. A more earnest group of people couldn’t be found.
As I was getting ready to leave, Rick Humphrey walked by, sporting a magnificent mustache and goatee. He gamely—and no less earnestly—agreed to chat for a minute. “I have a heart, I understand people want to be here, but we’re a nation of laws,” he said. The argument that families had been in the country for many years didn’t persuade him: “If I robbed a bank and got away with it for a while, they’d still punish me when they caught me.”
Even South of the Border, it turns out, immigration is a polarizing topic.