- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

EASTON, Md. (AP) — Juan Loaiza has seen his Spanish-speaking neighbors thrive on the Eastern Shore. A Hispanic grocery he started five years ago now has three neighbors catering to Spanish shoppers, not far from Easton’s downtown shopping district.

Mr. Loaiza and his neighbors are bringing big changes to the Eastern Shore — and immigration has become a flash point in crowded 1st Congressional District primary races that include nine candidates. In both parties, calls for immigration changes are a major topic.

A forum last month brought several immigration questions, with one voter describing immigration as “out of control.” A Republican candidate, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Eastern Maryland, sent out campaign ads showing two of his primary opponents and a Democratic politician wearing sombreros and describing them as the “Three Amigos” for what he perceives as their support for immigrants.

In a protracted race that started last summer with challengers criticizing incumbent Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest for his stance on the war, immigration seems to have eclipsed Iraq as a main topic among voters preparing to vote Tuesday.

“There are so many Mexicans living here, it’s like we’re the minority, white people are the minority,” said Samantha Cummings, 22, a waitress who works at a grill not far from Mr. Loaiza’s store.

Her discontent with the population change in her hometown is something several candidates in the primaries are working to address.

“There are a lot of people in both parties who feel immigration has gotten out of hand, and Congress hasn’t done anything to stop it,” said state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore and Harford counties Republican, also challenging Mr. Gilchrest.

Mr. Pipkin said his opponents have been soft on illegal immigration.

“People look to Washington to secure our borders, and they’re disappointed,” he said. “If they’re not here legally, they shouldn’t stay.”

Mr. Gilchrest says he is working to ensure immigrants coming to his district are here legally. He met last week with federal immigration officials in Salisbury on how local police should deal with illegal aliens.

Mr. Gilchrest, a nine-term incumbent, said recently that immigrant workers are coming to the Eastern Shore to work low-paying seafood and poultry jobs that most natives no longer want and to build new homes or condos popping up across the region.

“In the last 10 years, the Delmarva Peninsula has been seen by developers the same way the peninsula of Florida was seen by developers in the 1950s,” he said. “You have a lot of developers coming in here, then they need a work force.”

The number of immigrants living on the Eastern Shore is not clear. Salisbury University sociologist Tim Dunn says the region’s immigrant population has had “steady” but “not spectacular” growth. The U.S. census surveys only one Eastern Shore county in the period between its 10-year nationwide reports.

The candidates are careful to point out that they don’t oppose legal immigrants or newcomers to the state. But with the “Three Amigos” ad and Mr. Pipkin and Mr. Harris sniping over who opposes illegal immigration more, racial overtones in the campaigns are hard to ignore.

“The difficulty with this issue is, sometimes this debate becomes a racial issue,” said Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil, a Democrat candidate who has made illegal immigration a mainstay of his campaign. “Clearly, we’re a nation of immigrants, and we’ve got to make sure this debate doesn’t become one of keeping people out and a racial thing.”

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