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Passing the Salsa Across a Chasm

This is a small town, relatively speaking, so it’s no surprise people were talking the next day about the odd couple seen dining together at Mexico Cafe on Wednesday night.

Wendy McCammack, a conservative City Council member from the Country Club neighborhood, was digging into chicken fajitas across from Gil Navarro, a children’s advocate and lefty agitator from the heavily Latino West Side.

You cannot get two more extreme opinions on the local measure that would turn San Bernardino into a rodeo, with authorities herding illegal immigrants out of town. The proposal would slap fines on anyone employing or renting to an illegal immigrant and require that all city business be conducted in English, without so much as a gracias or buenos dias.

Yours truly sent out the dinner invitation to McCammack and Navarro because, hey, I’m a uniter and not a divider, and San Bernardino seems to be splitting apart over a topic that divides much of the nation as well.

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If you missed the story, Joseph Turner, founder of a group called Save Our State, forced the issue. He gathered roughly 3,000 votes to put a petition before the City Council with the proviso that it would go to voters if the council didn’t give a thumbs up. It fell on a 4-3 vote May 15, and now the council could schedule a special election for as early as September, with taxpayers footing the estimated $300,000 bill.

As we started downing the chips and salsa (tomato-based sauce), I detected more than a hint of awkwardness between McCammack and Navarro, but no outward hostility.

“We have a lot of families in town who feel we’re inundated with a failing school system and a disproportionate number of illegal immigrants going into our hospitals ... without insurance,” said McCammack, who voted for the measure in May.

Her mother had an emergency room visit and waited her turn behind illegal immigrants whose tab is picked up by taxpayers, McCammack said, and public school students are held back by the offspring of illegal immigrants because they don’t speak English. Then there’s her Asian American gardener, a legal resident who has to compete with illegals who drag down wages.

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In the tax business McCammack runs with her husband, she said clients often come in with suspicious Social Security numbers, and she estimated that 25% of the Police Department’s contacts are with illegal immigrants.

Somebody had to stand up to all of this, she said.

“I think Joe Turner saw that nothing was being done at the border, and federal and state legislators are not doing too much.”

So she voted ‘yes’ on May 15.

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I turned next to Navarro, who made an economic argument: If San Bernardino doesn’t want the Latino community’s brown skin, Latinos will spend their green money somewhere else.

“It’s mean-spirited, going after a particular race of people,” he said of the proposal, which he thinks will fuel suspicion and hatred that doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal residents. “If this was against blacks, it would never happen.”

On the assumption there was no way to bridge the philosophical divide between them, Navarro asked McCammack to simply consider the fiscal effect the resolution would have on the city.

Do you hire more cops to investigate who’s legal and who isn’t? Do you scare new businesses away from locating in San Bernardino for fear of being slapped with fines? Do you run legal citizens out of the public schools and lose daily funding because their parents have been forced to move?

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The fiscal effects would be positive, McCammack countered, because illegal immigrants cost a fortune in services.

And so we were back to square one.

Look, I asked the two adversaries (I was beginning to feel more like President Bush than I ever thought I would), is there no middle ground here? The way I see it, much of what McCammack said is true, and so is much of what Navarro said.

But if I lived in Mexico and my family was starving because of an inept government, Mexican political corruption and U.S. subsidies to American farmers, I’d tunnel, jump or swim across the border no matter the risk. Especially given the insatiable U.S. demand for labor and the intentionally hypocritical U.S. immigration policy.

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“I would too,” McCammack said.

Are you listening, San Bernardino? If McCammack hadn’t been born here, she’d be an illegal immigrant.

But the law is the law, she said, and it has to be enforced. Period. The proposed ordinance would “send a message,” she said.

It would send a message, all right, San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris told me the next day.

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“It’s so ridiculous as to be laughable,” he snapped, saying the proposal would be bad for business and monstrously difficult and expensive to enforce. He also pointed out that cracking down on illegal immigration is a federal rather than local matter, and he doesn’t care to see his ethnically diverse burg develop a national reputation as a redneck backwater.

“I don’t want to be mayor of a city with that label.”

If McCammack wants to send a message as an elected official, why not demand that the federal government cover the costs of its broken policy and hammer out a compromise reform plan? As I see it, the federal government can’t realistically round up and deport 12 million people, so it ought to impose fines, offer naturalization, collect taxes, punish employers and slow the flow of additional illegals.

Even McCammack agreed that San Bernardino’s line in the sand is meaningless. If approved by voters, the measure will be tied up, if not strangled, in court. In fact, McCammack said she was now thinking about recommending against an election, but that would invite lawsuits as well.

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Was it worth fanning the flames, then?

McCammack said she’s had e-mails comparing her to Hitler or enlisting her for the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of the wacko fringe, she’s heard from rednecks saying, “Way to go, Wendy.”

Doesn’t it concern you, I asked, to have rednecks cheering you on?

No, she said, claiming most of her support has come from legal citizens who happen to be Latinos.

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Navarro rolled his eyes. He was carrying a letter addressed to him from a San Bernardino resident who called him things I can’t print here. The nicest thing he was called was a racist.

There, common ground. McCammack and Navarro have both been called bigots.

“In my heart of hearts,” McCammack said, “I don’t feel like a bigot.”

OK, so I won’t be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize. But by the time dinner was done, I think the divide was narrowed just a tad. McCammack and Navarro may never agree on whether the measure would be good or bad for San Bernardino, but they seemed to walk away with a little more respect for each other.

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In fact, before leaving the restaurant, they hugged. A good thing, I think, for San Bernardino.

Or should I say Saint Bernard?

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez

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