An island off the Los Angeles coast reluctantly finds itself in the middle of an international tussle over illegal immigration, and some leaders are blaming their own congressman for putting them there.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher flew by helicopter here earlier this month to confront a Mexican official who was handing out identity cards that nationals use in the U.S. to open bank accounts and cash checks. The GOP congressman said the IDs only help illegal immigrants establish a foothold in the U.S.
Many island residents saw his visit as grandstanding, portraying their community as a haven for illegal immigrants and unnecessarily drawing them into a raging immigration debate that could harm their tourist-dependent economy.
"Are there illegals on Catalina? Yes, there are illegals everywhere in the country. I don't think we're different than any other community," said Wayne Griffin, president of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
"Don't grandstand on our island and somehow make us part of the problem," he said.
Business leaders say they've received e-mails since the visit from people upset about the IDs and threatening to take their business elsewhere because the Mexican consulate event was held on the island 22 miles from the mainland.
The controversy erupted as the island's businesses hoped to draw attention to a $13 million facelift, with new attractions including a zip line that carries riders from 600 feet above sea level to the beach.
Rohrabacher acknowledged their concerns, agreeing that immigration was a federal responsibility, not theirs.
His visit was the latest episode in a long-running debate over the IDs. Mexico has issued more than 7.2 million cards in the U.S. since 2002 through a network of 50 consulates that includes outposts in Boise, Idaho, Juneau, Alaska and Little Rock, Ark.
Mexican officials say the IDs, valid for five years, are also used by Mexicans who are in the U.S. legally.
"The main objective is to provide our citizens with an ID card here, whatever they need it for," said Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "It's better for everyone to know who they are and where they live."
The Orange County congressman, who is seeking a 12th term in a safely Republican district, said the IDs made it easier for illegal immigrants to live in the U.S. and the program contradicted long-term strategy to combat illegal immigration.
"The idea that we are making it more comfortable for illegals to be here ... it's wrong," he said.
Rohrabacher said he learned about the Los Angeles consulate's June 3 visit a day or two before from constituents.
Flyers posted in Avalon, a town of about 4,000 people, advertised the consular event scheduled to be held at the Catalina Visitors Country Club, where the consulate held the same event in 2008 without controversy.
Brad Wilson, chief marketing officer for Santa Catalina Island Co., owner of the country club, got a call from a Rohrabacher aide the day before the event asking if he knew he was aiding and abetting illegal immigrants.
The congressman then sent a letter that suggested Mexico needed State Department clearance and that the city and country club were "unwitting participants" in a program to help illegal immigrants.
Taken aback, Wilson withdrew the invitation just as consular officials were unloading computers and printers from a ferry boat. The city's Catholic church offered a room to rescue the event.
Rohrabacher later conceded that State Department approval was unnecessary, saying his staff didn't have time to research the question before the event.
After his helicopter landed, he expounded on illegal immigration over breakfast with city officials and then walked a few blocks to church to confront Juan Carlos Mendoza, Mexico's deputy consul general in Los Angeles, face to face.
"We agreed that this would be decided between Mexico City and Washington," Mendoza said.
Consular officials said they issued 44 ID cards and 60 passports before they left.
The episode has left a bitter aftertaste on the island, where some Mexican families trace their ancestors' arrival to the era of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate who bought the island in 1919 and brought his Chicago Cubs for spring training.
Today, Avalon is a sleepy town where there's a large supermarket, post office and movie theater. On many mornings, about a dozen Mexican day laborers gather outside a market looking for work.
Locals say there was a big influx of illegal immigrants more than 20 years ago when cruise ships transformed the island from a summer to a year-round economy.
Mayor Bob Kennedy estimates about half the population is Latino — up to 70 percent in the public school — but there are few signs of division. Latinos and whites live on the same narrow streets.
"Really, this whole community acts as one," said Kennedy, a scuba-shop owner who backed the consular visit. "That's why we support this. They're providing services to this city. Legal or not, they're residing in our community."
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