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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Immigration dominates southern US politics
By Matthew Wells
In Carlsbad, Southern California

Mexican immigrants playing football in Carlsbad
Mexican immigrants unwind after work by playing football

Former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham was sent to prison earlier this month for taking bribes, provoking a special election in the serene-looking and sunny district he used to serve in Southern California.

There are 18 candidates vying for the chance to fill his safe Republican seat in Washington.

With such a crowded field, you may have thought the mainly Republican contestants would by trying to outdo each other on political integrity: promising to make up for the sleaze of the recent past.

Instead, the campaign rhetoric is focused on immigration. Everybody who lives in this largely affluent area, less than an hour's drive from the Mexican border, agrees that the current system is not working.

Latest estimates suggest that there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the US.

The great debate that is going on across party lines throughout the southern states, is how to stop that number from growing, and what to do about the people who are already here.

By definition, the economic facts and figures are guesswork.

Depending on who you listen to, "illegals" either cost American tax payers $45bn (25.8bn) each year in education, prison and health costs, or those 12 million are among the most productive net contributors to the national economy.

'Security risk'

Talking to local shoppers in the heavily-Republican city of Escondido, there are a few who speak with passion about the real and worthwhile contribution that Mexican "illegals" - or undocumented workers - make to their lives and local economy.

Most though were convinced that even if local businesses are blatantly hiring them, Mexicans without papers are a parasitic drain on local services, and worst of all, a major security risk at a time of war.

Attorney Mike Wischkaemper talks to a Mexican immigrant
Ask yourself if John Smith who lives in Carlsbad would ever come out here and work eight, nine, 10 hours a day
Attorney Michael Wischkaemper (right)

"They say that Iraqis are coming across our border. If they're coming across, anyone can come across," says Nancy Price.

She favours closing the border altogether, although she says she has "nothing against" a speeded-up process for legal workers.

Driving with the sun in your eyes towards the ocean, it is in the strawberry and flower fields of coastal Carlsbad, that the real blindspots of the Mexican-Californian relationship are exposed.

Michael Wischkaemper is a long-established attorney in the town, who considers himself a conservative Republican in all matters. But when it comes to Mexican workers, he is infuriated by what he sees as North American double standards.

He stands on a hill just a few minutes drive from his own plush office, pointing to the earth-works stretching to the horizon, that marks the boundary of Carlsbad's planned $45m (25.8m) golf course. Multi-million dollar housing developments pepper the landscape.

"Directly in front of us... and 25 feet from here, we would find somebody living in a field," he said.

Cheap labour force

He is not exaggerating. After a few minutes search, we come across a grubby blue plastic tent deep in the hillside brush, where an undocumented worker is cooking chicken on a portable gas stove.

He has been living like this for five months, working hard for a minimum wage, alongside his 17-year-old son.

They are in the country illegally, but have no intention of staying for long.

Bill Morrow
We need to control our borders
Candidate Bill Morrow

With the prospect of earning only $80 (46) per week in Mexico, he says he has to run the risk of crossing the border every couple of years - after paying $1,300 (745) to a trafficker - in order to send US dollars home to his wife and six other children.

Mr Wishkaemper is one of the few advocates that men like this have got in a largely hostile land.

Hostile that is, until it comes to the reality of clamping down on employers who rely on this cheap and under-protected labour force, or confronting the fact that many locals with anti-immigration views must be paying cash-in-hand to have their lawns mowed, roofs mended, and houses cleaned by the very people they revile as feckless freeloaders.

"Look at the work that this man is doing," says Mr Wishkaemper.

"Ask yourself if John Smith who lives in Carlsbad would ever come out here and work eight, nine, 10 hours a day, bending over all day long and picking the flowers - the Renuncula that grows here... We're so proud of it."

He runs an English class for some of the men once a week, and he has been trying to persuade the city to build a permanent shelter for the workers. It has been an uphill battle.


In his office in downtown Carlsbad, the right wing front-runner for the 50th Congressional District race, Bill Morrow, is adamant that the fuzzy tolerance of illegal workers simply has to end.

He has signalled his opposition by joining a group of anti-immigration activists who are now patrolling the border.

Minuteman Project members were characterised as "vigilantes" by President Bush last year, but nine of the candidates standing for election, have given the quasi-military volunteers their support.

Strawberry field in Carlsbad
Mexicans cross the border to work on Carlsbad's strawberry fields

"If there's a bandwagon out there, number one, I'm proud to be on it," says Mr Morrow.

"It's not playing to peoples' fear, it's playing to reality. In this day, when the terrorists have put the big bulls eye on us, we need to control our borders."

Mr Morrow and the other anti-immigration hardliners in the race, have rejected the president's notion of a guest worker programme. If they have their way, the dozens of Mexicans working in Carlsbad's fields will be sent home for good.

While the Mexicans unwind after work by playing football in the dusty tracks left by the golf course bulldozers, their sons play basketball.

Their good humour seems out of place until you remember that they are here - in the great tradition of American immigration - to provide better lives for their families.

As far as Wayne Cornelius is concerned, they have all become the political football in a race, where rhetoric is triumphing over reason.

The director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, in San Diego, is an unashamed liberal who believes it is a scenario which will be played out in dozens more districts this November, when the mid-term elections are held.

"It's easy to mobilise conservative Republicans in your district, if you tell them they're on welfare, or going to abuse social programmes; if you tell them the border is porous and... terrorists have easier access to military installations in this area."

"Then, it's possible to get them to forget about their objective economic interests," he adds.

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