The sign above the Soap Box Laundromat in East Boston proclaims in big, bold letters: TRUMP.
It is a surprising endorsement in this immigrant enclave for a presidential candidate who has insulted Mexicans, disavowed Syrians, and pledged to erect an even-taller wall along the US-Mexico border. But as Trump’s popularity soars even in blue states like Massachusetts, so do
immigrants’ worries that he will prevail in November.
“The fear is that he wins and then they grab you and send you back,” Melvin, a bleary-eyed 19-year-old immigrant here without papers from El Salvador, said as he waited for his clothes to dry after working the graveyard shift cleaning a restaurant. “Anyone will tell you that.”
Trump won the GOP primary in Massachusetts on Tuesday and was the top choice among Republicans in heavily immigrant cities such as Boston, where preliminary figures show he garnered more than 9,000 votes, and in Chelsea, Malden, Everett, and Revere.
Since Democrats dominate the electorate in Massachusetts, Trump has little hope of claiming victory here in the fall election. But the primary results, and the Trump signs blooming even in unlikely places such as East Boston, are stoking immigrants’ fears that a hard life could get
In Eastie, a changing neighborhood where nearly half of the residents are immigrants, many follow the presidential campaign on foreign-language newscasts streamed into their living rooms via satellite dishes.
Trump has referred to immigrants as “rapists” and “killers,” called for mass deportations of those here illegally, and in Boston, his rhetoric allegedly inspired at least one attack. Police arrested two brothers last year on charges of beating and urinating on a Mexican immigrant. Afterward, police claimed one brother told them, “Donald Trump was right.”
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said she fears Trump’s rhetoric could inspire more attacks. She said hackers crashed the nonprofit’s website as it tried to publicize information about voting and citizenship before the primaries.
“People are legitimately worried and especially — I’m referring to new Americans and new voters who really are scared of his vision and the tactics of fear that he is using to blame immigrants for any wrongdoings,” she said.
Gabriel Camacho, immigrant rights coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Massachusetts, said he is urging advocates to prepare for a possible Trump presidency and his threat to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants.
“I’m afraid of that,” Camacho said. “I’m not hiding my head in the sand. I think we really have to start thinking about how is this going to affect our work and our communities.”
With those unsettled feelings as a backdrop, the Trump sign above the Soap Box Laundromat remains a puzzle to customers and nearby residents.
Public records say Lisa and David Tirone of New Hampshire own the turquoise-and-white building that houses the laundromat. David Tirone said his wife owns the business.
David Tirone said he posted the sign on the building even though he disagrees with Trump’s plan to deport millions of immigrants — and added that he doubted that Trump would really carry it out. He said he admires the candidate’s straight talk.
“I’m a loyal Democrat, but to me Trump isn’t a regular politician. He’s one of the street guys. He doesn’t think before he talks. He’s not telling the public what they want to hear. I find that very honest,” said Tirone, 51 and raised in Eastie. “I don’t agree with everything he says,” he later added.
Tirone, who is of Italian and Canadian descent, said the Trump sign “hasn’t hurt my business at all.”
But some laundromat customers called the sign offensive, and said it felt like another attack on immigrants in a neighborhood where fast-rising rents are increasingly pushing them out.
The bleak-walled laundromat, which shakes with each spin cycle, is at the center of that change. Nearby, work permits signal possible plans to rehabilitate dilapidated buildings, near a bodega and Iglesia Sendas de Fe church.
If Trump is elected, his policies would probably target many of the same customers plunking quarters into the laundromat’s battered machines.
Among them was Melvin, the sleepless immigrant who had just gotten off work cleaning a swank restaurant near the State House. He scoffed at Trump’s plan to expand the wall along the border.
When he was 16, he climbed over the wall that stands there now, standing on the shoulders of smugglers in the suffocating August heat. Three women broke their ankles as they dropped from the wall into Texas. But he made it.
Once he dreamed of becoming an engineer. Now he just hopes to stay in America. To Melvin, deportation to his home country of El Salvador could be a death sentence.
“Many people are afraid to go home. In my country, to kill a person is like killing a dog,” he said. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to the State Department. “If they see a ring on your pinkie finger, they’ll cut the finger off.”
As he left the laundromat, a 59-year-old named Jesus arrived carrying a bag of dirty clothes, so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the Trump sign above the front door.
He said he came to America two years ago after his farm near Medellin, Colombia, went bust. Sometimes he unloads fish at the piers in Boston for $10 an hour. But now he is unemployed.
“I’m going to have to look for another place” to do laundry, Jesus said after being shown the sign, adding that Trump misunderstands immigrants, including those here illegally. He said they want to become Americans.
“There’s a lot of good people who want to work, who want to be with their children and their families,” Jesus added. “It’s an injustice to have to walk around in hiding, like rats.”
Jesus and Melvin asked to not have their full names published because they are here illegally.
Above the laundromat, many of the tenants who rent apartments from Tirone are also immigrants — and Tirone says he’s kept the rents low.
One tenant, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, defended the landlord, saying he has invited tenants to his New Hampshire home for summer barbecues.
“They’re good people,” the tenant said. “I don’t know why he put that sign up. He loves all of us. He’s treated us well.”
Lisa Tuite of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.