Rep. Dana Rohrabacher flew by helicopter to Santa Catalina Island at dawn Thursday to personally condemn an effort by the Mexican Consulate to offer identification cards to local undocumented workers.
But his hastily arranged visit, which aimed to single out Avalon as an example of a community overwhelmed with illegal immigration issues, drug abuse and crime, drew mixed reviews from island officials and merchants.
Some welcomed the attention in an isolated seaside community, about 22 miles off the Southern California coast, where an estimated 70% of the 3,000 permanent residents are Spanish-speaking Latinos.
Others, however, worried about its impact on the public image of the resort at the start of the crucial summer season.
Rohrabacher began his visit with a private, 90-minute breakfast meeting attended by Santa Catalina Island Co. officials, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department authorities and Avalon Mayor Bob Kennedy.
"We had a very frank discussion about a national issue," Rohrabacher said afterward. "This community is a microcosm of the problems in the whole country."
"Where there is illegal immigration, drugs and crime are certain to follow," added the Huntington Beach-based Republican, who is running for reelection in November and whose district includes the island.
Mayor Kennedy, standing nearby, would not go that far.
"We have been labeled a sanctuary city, and that is not true," he said. "But this is not a situation that can be handled by local officials. The problem is national."
The Mexican consul's office first offered passports and photo identification cards to illegal immigrant workers here two years ago, setting up shop for one day in the upscale Catalina Island Country Club restaurant. The matricula cards can be used to establish credit, open bank accounts, buy insurance and apply for government services.
The office had scheduled another such event for Thursday at the country club.
But all that changed Wednesday when Rohrabacher's office informed the restaurant's owner, Santa Catalina Island Co., that State Department approval might be necessary for any service to be provided by a foreign government on its property.
As a result, the company told the consul's office that it could no longer operate out of the country club. The consul's team of a dozen specialists moved a few blocks away to a meeting room at St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church.
But their problems were far from over.
At 10 a.m., Rohrabacher, flanked by an assistant, strode into the church to express his concerns about the services.
His presence in the church raised eyebrows. Rohrabacher was greeted by Juan Carlos Mendoza Sanchez, deputy consul general in Los Angeles, in the middle of the room where consulate workers were busily typing information from two dozen men and women into laptop computers.
Suddenly, all eyes were fixed on Rohrabacher and Mendoza, who launched into a terse dialogue, expressing strongly opposing opinions.
Standing inches apart, Mendoza told Rohrabacher, "We have a lot of respect for you. At the same time, we have certain responsibilities."
Rohrabacher responded: "I understand that. But there is a problem in our country; there are too many illegals here."
"This is not done with any type of belligerency," Rohrabacher added, referring to his unannounced visit.
"Everyone has their own point of view," Mendoza said. "We are performing this activity under international law."
"Well, that will be decided in Washington and Mexico City," Rohrabacher said.
No sooner had the congressman left town shortly before noon than local political, business and religious leaders began to distance themselves from the Mexican consul's program.
Brad Wilson, chief marketing officer for Santa Catalina Island Co., said: "On Wednesday, we got a call from Rohrabacher's office asking us if we knew we were involved in a potentially illegal activity, and aiding and abetting illegal aliens. We do not wish to be involved in illegal activities. We closed the country club facility."
Paul Siebenand, pastor of St. Catherine, said: "It was only by a series of flukes that they wound up meeting in our church. They came to me on Wednesday and said they couldn't be at the country club anymore and asked if they could use the church. I said, 'Well, I guess. There's nothing else going on.' They said they were going to help anyone Hispanic with their papers."
But Deputy Consul General Mendoza said: "Everybody knew exactly what was going on here. We are not breaking the law to be here. We are not hiding anything. I explained that to the mayor and others some time ago. Trouble is, right now everyone is feeling the pressure from the congressman."
"We'll evaluate the situation," he added, "then decide whether we should come back again two years from now."