HARRISBURG – Sitting on a leather sofa in a hair salon in Scranton, 1,900 miles from the Mexican border, immigration policy was still a hot-button issue as Jackie Leon and Frank Demarzo talked politics while waiting for their first client of the day to arrive for her appointment.

Leon, the owner of the Headhunters Salon in Scranton, said she doesn’t think the U.S. should allow immigrants into the country before it's determined whether they qualify for asylum or are otherwise vetted.

“There’s some bad people," she said. "You’re getting killers and everything.”

Her remarks irked Demarzo.

He said he has relatives in Italy who come to Scranton for one month a year. He said his cousin expressed amazement at the controversy over the United States government’s policies of separating immigrant children from their parents.

“I don’t think most other countries can understand how we can do that,” he said. “It’s ruthless.”

Scranton, in Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, has long been a Democratic stronghold. It’s the hometown of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Joe Biden, the former vice president and current candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.

President Donald Trump won in neighboring Luzerne County, en route to winning Pennsylvania in 2016. But Democrats outnumber Republican by more than 2-to-1 in Lackwanna County. There are 83,663 Democrats and just 41,247 Republicans and even so, Hillary Clinton only won Lackawanna County by 3.5 percentage points. It was just one of 11 of the state’s 67 counties that Clinton won in 2016.

Former President Barack Obama won Lackawanna County by 26 percentage points in 2008 and 27 percentage points in 2012.

Leon said she was originally a Democrat, but she switched her party affiliation in the late 1980s so she could support Scranton attorney Ernie Preate’s successful bid for attorney general. Leon said she never bothered switching her party affiliation back to Democrat, but she said she votes for candidates she likes regardless of their party.

Immigration wasn’t the only point on which Leon and Demarzo diverged while speaking to a reporter.

Leon said she voted for Trump because she thought Clinton was dishonest. Voters sent Trump to Washington because they wanted someone to upset the status quo. She added that doesn’t think the country is ready to elect a woman president.

Demarzo said the country would be better off if it did elect a woman.

“A woman would be better because they have a nature of nurturing,” he said.

Demarzo, 73, said that he doesn’t understand the pushback being faced by progressives on issues that are being characterized as “socialism.”

He said that as a single man, he’s had to pay taxes for schools for other people’s children and his taxes go for other services he’s never used. But he doesn’t complain about it.

'What to believe'

Two blocks away from Headhunters, brothers Jim and John Ferguson were drinking coffee outside a café overlooking Scranton’s Courthouse Square. The Fergusons are both retired math teachers and they affably chatted about politics over the din on construction noise from the square.

In Courthouse Square, there’s a statue of John Mitchell, former president of the United Mine Workers, who led the union during the 1902 “Great Strike” in the anthracite region. John Ferguson noted that years ago, most people in Scranton were members of labor unions – the men as coal miners and the women with the textile workers union. The dominance of the labor groups has long since dimmed, though.

The Fergusons attend regular gatherings of retired teachers.

“It’s like an echo chamber” of people with liberal views like theirs, Jim Ferguson said.

He sad he’s bothered by Trump’s penchant for lying and contradicting himself and his subordinates.

“Look, he goes and leaks the news that he’s considering sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East and then when it’s reported, he says it’s not true,” Jim Ferguson said. “You don’t know what to believe.”

Jim Ferguson said he had expected that Trump would be beatable in 2020, but he’s becoming less confident.

“I thought he was vulnerable,” Jim Ferguson said. But Trump’s supporters aren’t giving up on the president and the sheer number of Democrats running to challenge Trump is making it difficult for opposition to the president to consolidate behind one candidate.

“Democrats aren’t doing anyone any favors” by having so many contenders.

John Ferguson said he’d voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016. He’s now leaning toward supporting Elizabeth Warren. But both said they’d gladly back Biden if he wins the nomination. 

Hometown candidate 

But back at Headhunters, Leon and Demarzo were less enthusiastic about Biden.

Demarzo said that while most Scranton residents are happy to claim Biden as a native son, the former vice president moved away as a child.

Leon said Biden’s “too old” and gaffe-prone.

“He can’t even give a speech without having to put out a statement correcting it,” she said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.