Latino immigrants have been coming to the rural South in small numbers since the 1910s and have dominated the agricultural labor force there since the 1980s. From the early 20th century through the 1960s, they mostly picked cotton alongside poor African-American and White laborers. But since the postwar economic expansion and civil rights movement created new opportunities for White and Black workers, Latinos have become the main source of labor for all of Southern agriculture.
Working-class Whites have not competed with immigrants for agricultural jobs in decades and, thus, are receptive to growers' pronouncements that Latino immigrants "saved" entire local economies.
Arriving to racially divided communities in the wake of the civil rights movement, Latinos were initially met with suspicion and exclusion. But over time, that suspicion gave way to acceptance as agricultural and evangelical community leaders successfully used their local clout to frame the issue for rural White people from across the economic spectrum.
Working-class Whites have not competed with immigrants for agricultural jobs in decades, and thus are receptive to growers' pronouncements that Latino immigrants "saved" entire local economies. During the time I spent conducting research in Southern Georgia, I heard stories of anti-Latino incidents but observed that, overall, locals supported their presence in town. When I tell this to blue-state liberals, they find it surprising, because it contradicts their stereotypes about the rural South. But upon reflection, it makes sense, considering who the key players are in rural Southern communities.
White evangelicals, who have dominated civic culture in the rural South, play an important role in the generalized acceptance of Latino immigrants.
They heard echoes of their own immigration discussions in Bush's language of "love." For them, Latin America was not a far-off scary haven of drugs and disease. It was the place they ventured to build houses as missionaries. Many returned excited to pursue charity and evangelization with the Latin Americans living closer to home. One such man I interviewed, Sonny B., sported a "No to the Obama agenda" bumper sticker. But when I asked him about his views on undocumented immigrants he told me: "I've got no problem with them. They accept me, and I accept them."
For rural White conservatives like Sonny, Latino immigrants were not a threat to the future of White America. Instead, they became an opportunity for its redemption: a chance to cultivate cosmopolitanism and "tolerance" in a region shamed by its resistance to equality for African-Americans. Reconciliation with local Black communities has been fraught with pitfalls, while charity projects in Mexican migrant camps have become increasingly attractive. For example, an overwhelmingly White Christian private school in Peach County, Georgia, eagerly initiated Easter Egg hunts and other charity projects in Mexican migrant camps rather than in the area's much-larger Black communities.