New York Magazine

The Trump-Loving Town And Its Favorite Undocumented Immigrant

THE CITIZENS OF POPLAR BLUFF, MISSOURI, EMBRACED ALEX GARCIA—AND NOW THEY WANT HIM BACK FROM THE CHURCH BASEMENT WHERE HE’S BEEN HIDING FOR THE PAST 18 MONTHS.
“CAN’T WE ADOPT HIM?” BRUCE PETERSON (FAR RIGHT) ASKED. GARCIA’S OTHER SUPPORTERS INCLUDE JOHN POLASEK (FAR LEFT); CORBIT BARNET (FRONT LEFT, IN BASEBALL CAP); GARCIA’S EX-GIRLFRIEND AMBER LEGRAND (IN GLASSES AND BLUE PLAID SHIRT); GARCIA AND LEGRAND’S CHILDREN, AYDEN, 13 (IN YELLOW PLAID SHIRT), AND MADDUX, 11 (IN GLASSES); AND GARCIA’S FATHER-AND MOTHER-IN-LAW, BENJI AND KRIS ZUNIGA (IN FRONT OF POST, MIDDLE).

ON A RAINY SPRING day in 2002, Alex Garcia jumped off the slow-moving freight train, hungry for a meal. He’d been traveling for two weeks, alternately riding on the outdoor platform at the rear of a railcar and walking alongside the tracks. He hadn’t eaten in three days.

Garcia’s journey originated in Honduras, and he first hopped a train after crossing the border in Laredo, Texas. He wandered down a road, carrying a plastic bag with an extra set of clothes. “I thought I was in Houston,” he told me. He’d planned to meet a friend there. In fact, he was in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

Bruce Peterson, a contractor who owns several rental properties, vividly remembers the sight of a drenched, noticeably gaunt man coming up the road. He looked Hispanic, unusual in Poplar Bluff, and he looked lost. Peterson beckoned him over, out of the rain, under a metal car canopy he and a friend were dismantling. Though Garcia spoke no English, he was able to convey that he’d help the two men with the job. Peterson suggested he rest first and gave him a can of soda and an apple, which Garcia devoured. Garcia then picked up a screw gun and gestured to the top of the canopy. “Next thing I know, he was on top taking it apart,” Peterson said.

Once they were done, Peterson signaled to Garcia to get into his pickup, that they’d get something to eat. Garcia, who said he intuitively trusted Peterson, didn’t hesitate. They drove to Peterson’s in-laws, who made dinner for the young man. Afterward, Peterson gave him $50 and a bag of food, then drove him to a Mexican restaurant where he knew the manager. There Garcia consumed yet another meal.

“I’m a good judge of character,” Peterson told me. “I didn’t want to throw him to the dogs.” Peterson, a burly man with thick forearms and deep-set eyes, gets choked up talking about this moment. “Garcia changed me,” he said.

Poplar Bluff is located 130 miles south of St. Louis on the edge of the Ozarks. The town of 17,000 is neither struggling nor thriving—it’s managing. The downtown looks forlorn, with boarded-up storefronts and cobblestoned streets. But the main thoroughfare has in recent years exploded with retail, including a new Starbucks, which, like it or not, often suggests that a place has a future. Most people in Poplar Bluff work in retail or farming (soybeans and rice) or at the local hospital or one of several manufacturing plants. Garcia did construction, usually for the town’s biggest developer, renovating two malls. He was by all accounts a hard worker and highly skilled. What he didn’t know how to do he would teach himself through YouTube videos, including how to bowhunt. His former co-workers speak of his kindness. One told of how Garcia would mow the lawns of elderly homeowners for free after work. “I didn’t grow up around

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