An Immigrant Oasis Flourishes in Jeff Sessions’ Alabama
Crossville is an oddity: a socially calm, largely Hispanic community tucked in the Deep South. So why did it vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump?
CROSSVILLE, Alabama—Growing up in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, David Uptain never met a person of color. His was a town like most others in the Deep South: all-white, mostly blue-collar, and dripping with a socially conservative ethos.
But in the past few decades, the town has undergone dramatic changes. Crossville is still majority-white—but likely won’t be for long. Signs throughout the town are written in Spanish. A Mexican grocery store sits on the main road, and a Spanish-language Seventh-day Adventist church is under construction nearby.
“I grew up here never thinking it would change as much as it changed,” Uptain, 61, told The Daily Beast during a wide-ranging sit-down at Limon’s Mexican Restaurant off Highway 68.
The reason Crossville changed is because of people like Uptain. As the principal of Crossville High School for 17 years up until his retirement in August, he played a chief role in managing an influx of immigrant students from Mexico and Guatemala whose parents had come to northern Alabama for jobs in the poultry industry.
The task wasn’t easy. Often, Uptain’s efforts ran counter to the state’s conservative political drift. Alabama’s state officials have authored some of the toughest immigration crackdowns in the country, while the lawmakers it has sent to Washington, D.C., are some of Congress’ most restrictionist ideologues.
And yet, through it all, Crossville remained an oasis of inclusivity—an illustration, of sorts, for how America’s politics don’t always reflect its demographic underpinnings.
Crossville High School sits on County Road 28 in rural northern Alabama. From the outside, it looks like a typical rural school with its large athletic fields and students sporting their Crossville Lions gear and football jerseys. But inside, the student body doesn’t look like the rest of Alabama. Whereas the state is nearly 70 percent white and just 4 percent Hispanic, a whopping 57 percent of Crossville High School students are Hispanic—340 out of 600 pupils.
The diversity is owed to chicken.
Crossville and the surrounding areas boast a robust poultry industry. And that industry has attracted immigrant labor from Mexico and Guatemala. At first, parents came without their kids, choosing instead to send their paychecks back home. But eventually they brought their kids with them.
When Uptain became principal in 2000, the school was big enough for everyone from kindergarten through 12th grade. Since then, the district has had to be split up into an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. It’s forced many—including Uptain himself—to confront the concept of inclusivity and what it means to be a community.
Uptain admits that he didn’t always embrace minorities. In fact, he cops to being “prejudiced bad” earlier in his life. He recounted trying to end his sister’s relationship in college with an Armenian man who was born in Syria, before having a change of heart.
“I told my dad—who felt the same way—I said, ‘If this is who my sister picked, we need to get to know him. We need to drop all this prejudice and find out why she likes him.’ And when I did, I found out he’s a great guy,” Uptain said. The couple has since married.
He became principal in 2000, at a time when the immigrant population was beginning to grow in Crossville and the nearby town of Kilpatrick.
For those immigrant students, the language barrier was the first hurdle to clear. The school did not have an official translator, and Uptain often relied on a bilingual sixth-grade student to keep the lines of communication open. It wasn’t until 2004 that the school hired its first translator, a Crossville graduate named Maria Quintana, who emigrated from Mexico.
“If you weren’t on board, I didn’t want you,” Uptain said of his staff. “And pretty much everybody was on board.”
In addition to relying on his staff, Uptain encouraged his students to participate in after-school activities. This created anticipated frictions. There were fights early on, largely along racial lines. And many white families in the district blamed the Hispanic students’ involvement in athletics for allegedly causing the school’s division ranking to be downgraded. But Uptain viewed it as a price—and a minor one, at that—to pay for more harmonized race relations.
“I feel like there were a lot of people that respected what I did. But I had a lot of people that wished I’d floated on down the river,” he said with a laugh. “There was a lot of resentment. And in the adult population, some of that is still here,” Uptain added. “But as the kids were here, they learned English and they learned that school was a good place for them and that we’d take care of them. So when the trust came along and they started trusting us, things were really good.”
Over the last 10 years, the school has few recorded incidents of racial conflicts among the student body.
As Crossville grew more diverse, Alabama politics turned the other direction. In 2011, then-Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration that said anyone could be detained if they were suspected of being in the country illegally. The school was thrown into chaos.
“For a little while, some kids stopped coming to school because they were afraid that, the way the policy is written, the school would have to report them if they weren’t legal,” Uptain recounted. “I kept telling them, ‘Just come on. All that will be taken care of. I’m not going to turn you in.’”
Three Crossville families moved to different states because of the new law, according to Uptain. He was furious.
“Why are we this holier-than-thou group of people? We’re not,” Uptain said bluntly. “God tells us to take care of our brother. I realize for some folks, older folks, that’s a big learning curve. And I understand it’s political.”
Alabama’s federal officials were hardly any help. The town’s congressman, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) has opposed giving legal protections to so-called Dreamers—the undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. And for two decades, one of the state’s two senators was Jeff Sessions, the chamber’s most prominent immigration hardliner who has since gone on to become the U.S. attorney general.
Sessions was chiefly responsible for torpedoing legislation that would have given a pathway to citizenship for many of Crossville’s kids. And as attorney general, he has championed harsh crackdowns on undocumented immigrants throughout the country.
The man likely to fill Session’s seat in the Senate is the state’s former chief justice, Roy Moore, who has taken just as hard a line on immigration matters, but with an even less diplomatic touch. Moore once warned of “blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting,” and expressed no familiarity with Dreamers, except to know that he opposed a legal status for them. He supports building a wall on the southern border, and during a debate last month, said the U.S. should only admit immigrants who will “do something for our economy.”
And yet, while there are some Democrat-heavy counties in the state, DeKalb County, which encompasses Crossville, is not one of them.
Donald Trump won the county with 83 percent in 2016. Dreamers and undocumented immigrants in Crossville cannot vote.
Uptain understands why Trump does well even in places where integration has taken root. There is an uneasiness, he explained, among voters about the rapid cultural changes that they believe are upending the America they used to know.
Since the election, the tension has grown worse. Trump recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an executive order by President Obama that temporarily shielded Dreamers from deportation. And of the 340 Hispanic students at Crossville High School, an estimated 200 to 250 are DACA beneficiaries, according to Quintana, the translator.
“They’re really scared,” Quintana told The Daily Beast. “Parents are also scared because, first of all, they’re afraid that [the federal government is] going to use their information to come and deport them.”
Even though it’s not in her job description, Quintana often helps Hispanic parents with their Medicaid and DACA forms, and hears their frustrations and fears first-hand.
“A lot of our Hispanic parents just pray and hope and go with whatever’s going to come basically,” she said.
Uptain—who describes his politics as “not liberal but not super, super conservative”—has voted for Republicans at the presidential level over the last few decades. But he did not vote for Trump. He views the president as a divider, citing his desire to construct a wall on the southern border as a way to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
“If we build a wall across Mexico, why not Canada? The reason why is because Mexicans are brown and Canadians are white. It’s a racist thing,” Uptain said.
But Uptain did not vote for Hillary Clinton, either. Instead, he was one of just 458 people in DeKalb County to cast a ballot for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian party’s nominee.
This past year, he cast a vote for Moore, the hardline anti-DACA candidate who espouses everything Uptain thinks is wrong with conservative orthodoxy when it comes to immigration issues. But he did so with an ulterior motive, believing it would make it easier for the Democrat in the race, Doug Jones, to prevail in the general election. A religious man, Uptain said he’s not willing to accept that the political norms of his state are unchangeable; he thinks the politicians lack courage.
“Jeff Sessions is listening to a lot of people that are white and he’s just beating that drum for them. It’s just politics,” he said. “I don’t know if he talks really that way or not. But that’s what people want to hear.”
At Limon’s Mexican Restaurant on a sunny but humid day in late September, Uptain sat down over a meal of enchiladas, rice, beans, and chips and salsa. Many of the restaurant’s employees are his former students at Crossville. Throughout the course of the meal, he would often strike up conversations with different servers—asking them how they’re doing after graduating high school, and giving them unsolicited advice about potential career paths and college choices.
Though he is no longer school principal, having retired this past August, Uptain remains widely known throughout the community. He’s been referred to as the dean of DeKalb County education, and his work in the community went far beyond the classroom.
In 2013, when a major tornado ripped through the region, it was Uptain who opened up his school for displaced residents—prepping meals with his wife and setting up cots in the gym. In that moment, the town rallied around its Hispanic residents, he recalled, and ethnic and racial lines were afterthoughts.
“I think that’s the most tragic but the best return of anything. I think that helped open folks’ eyes,” he said.
Racial progress, Uptain knows, doesn’t follow straight lines. But he’s confident that it is ultimately achievable. Inside Limon’s, the food smells good and the walls are colorfully painted. The atmosphere is jovial—a reminder that there are some nooks and folds that politics has yet to infest. Crossville’s style of thinking when it comes to immigrants may be the exception to the rule in Alabama. But having lived in the state his entire life, Uptain does not seem to think adaptation is difficult.
“We’re not the most educated state in the country. A lot of folks believe that these other races must not be going to heaven. That’s not how I believe,” Uptain said. “I believe that anybody has an opportunity to go to heaven. So if we believe that and we’re going to be with them in heaven, why don’t we get to know them down here?”