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On Border Issue, Bono Looks for Middle Ground

Her fast-growing district demands workers -- as well as action on immigration laws.

April 10, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — John Wessman is one of the biggest developers in the Coachella Valley. He considers Mary Bono, the celebrity congresswoman, a friend and has contributed more than $5,000 to her campaigns.

But when it comes to the issue of immigration, he thinks his fellow Republican has been captured by extremists. "I don't know why Mary's over there on that," said Wessman, who contends the tough House bill she backed would worsen the area's labor shortage and "hurt a lot of her constituents, big time."

Gary Stone is a talk radio host, the Democratic half of the "Marshall and Stone" show, which airs weekday afternoons on Palm Springs' KNWQ-AM. He plans to vote for Bono in November, if for no other reason than her support for the House legislation, which would turn illegal immigrants into felons.

"People are irate," Stone said of the callers who made the immigration issue a dominant subject of his show for several days running. Although there are misconceptions, "they're tired of having to order six times at a drive-through window because people behind the microphone can't understand English. They're tired of the school system being dumbed down and teachers teaching to the kid in the class that doesn't speak English."

To hear Bono tell it, both have her position wrong, ignoring her support for a guest-worker program and the sympathy she feels toward many people here illegally. "A lot of the facts have been lost with the heated rhetoric," she says.

Bono came to Congress eight years ago, after her husband, Sonny, died in a Lake Tahoe skiing accident. Since then, no issue, not even the war in Iraq, has generated as much emotion -- or phone calls, letters and e-mails -- as the question of how to secure the border and deal with the 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.

There is precious little middle ground, and even less room for nuance.

Perhaps that is because few places capture the changing face of California and the friction of clashing cultures as much as Bono's 45th Congressional District, which starts in the San Bernardino Mountains, passes through Palm Springs and reaches across the Mojave Desert to Arizona.

The region is one of the fastest-growing in the country, attracting many in the first wave of retiring baby boomers and big-city refugees thrilled to pay $400,000 for a new 2,500-square-foot home with walk-in closets, granite countertops and other fancy trimmings.

At the same time, the large, long-established Latino population is growing, and immigrants -- legal and illegal -- are flocking here to seek jobs in the two biggest industries, tourism and agriculture. Employers say they are desperate for workers, even at $12 an hour, plus benefits, to make beds or wash dishes at one of the area's many resort hotels.

The contrasts are striking, and often discombobulating, particularly in this swanky town. In the early-morning hours, beat-up trucks ferry landscape crews through showcase neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar homes. Come lunchtime, customers at a Jewish delicatessen are more apt to hear Spanish than Yiddish as the busboys trundle away unfinished corned-beef sandwiches and bowls of matzo ball soup.

By most estimates, a significant percentage of the entry-level workers in the local landscaping, construction, food service and tourism industries are unskilled Latinos. Verifying their legal status is next to impossible, several employers said, because of the ready availability of forged documents -- not that anyone is likely to admit to knowingly breaking the law.

Besides, the relatively cheap labor -- and the steady supply of people eager to do the work -- is what helps keep the Coachella Valley humming.

"If we stopped everything tomorrow, said, 'Everyone go home,' and the jobs opened to Americans or legals only, it would be so gut-wrenching the economy couldn't handle it," said Dennis Cunningham, another big local developer and a disaffected Republican.

That means living amid an obvious contradiction, which many are content to ignore: a winking acceptance of lawbreaking at the same time people blame illegal immigrants for increased crime, worsening traffic and a growing drain on public services. Some, like barbershop owner Judy Bronstein, acknowledge as much. "I think we better watch what we wish for," said Bronstein as she prepared to call to order the weekly Palm Spring Rotary Club meeting. "Or we might have a $5 tomato."

Others questioned the prevailing wisdom that drives so much of the immigration debate, such as the notion that citizens won't do the jobs taken by illegal workers. "I really think our population has enough number-wise to accommodate all the work positions in the country," said Helene Kalfuss, a retired speech pathologist and fellow Rotarian. "If they have to start at the bottom and do the jobs that people don't like to do, so be it."

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