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Hate illegals? Love chicken tenders?

This time of year editorial boards across America labor under a crush of candidate endorsement interviews – so much democracy, so little time. But we emerge keenly aware of what politicians think voters want. And this year what vox pop is saying is that folks don't like the bailout or illegal immigrants.

Voters don't like the economy either, but most state and local candidates don't even bother with a fix-it plan. However, almost all are eager to decry illegal immigration.

Charlotte and North Carolina have seen unprecedented immigration in the past 15 years. Census figures show that in the 1990s, the state's Hispanic population rose almost 400 percent. In 2006-07 North Carolina had the third-fastest growing Latino population. An estimated 390,000 N.C. immigrants are illegal.

Now, understand, I don't like it when people flaut the law. I believe even dumb laws should be followed. I never cheated in school. Heck, I barely cheat at solitaire.

I've seen how thousands of immigrants, many unable to speak English and poorly educated, have swamped local services from English as a Second Language classes to health care to social services.

How the pieces fit

But our society is like a big jigsaw puzzle, and too many people are closing their eyes to how the pieces fit together. Consider these recent events:

Last week I took part in East Charlotte's annual Taste of the World celebration of ethnic restaurants. It's held to celebrate the city's international flavor. We were loaded on buses and each bus visited three restaurants. Ours went to Fu Lin, a great Indo-Chinese fusion spot on Independence Boulevard; Pollo Inka, an intriguing Peruvian spot on Sharon Amity Road; and Korea Restaurant out Albemarle Road, with tasty kimchee. The experience was one of camaraderie and culinary adventure. And no one checked green cards.

Last week's sales flyer from Harris Teeter supermarkets offered half-price bags of frozen, boneless chicken breasts. And this week, frozen turkey is only 89 cents a pound.

Last week, a House of Raeford poultry processing plant in Greenville, S.C., was raided and some 300 workers were detained on suspicion of being here illegally.

Former plant supervisors had told Observer reporters months before that the plant preferred undocumented workers, because they were less likely to question unsafe working conditions for fear of lost jobs or deportation. One former employment supervisor even told reporters a plant manager had specifically told her in 2001 to stop hiring African Americans.

And recently, as federal raids intimidated Latinos, the company has turned to state prisons for workers. That should tell you something about working conditions and wages.

Bargain prices, bargain labor

It's one of those not-so-secret secrets behind our supermarkets' bargain prices: The U.S. poultry industry depends on bargain labor. Even if that cheap turkey at the Teeter may not be from House of Raeford, it's from somewhere where costs are low.

And those restaurants I visited last week? I don't know if the owners are U.S. citizens, or here legally, or not. But it's a safe bet at least some of them couldn't survive without illegal immigrants as customers or employees.

You know how those bad loans got embedded through the world's financial system? Well, illegal immigration is just as embedded in the U.S. economy, for better or worse.

And some of the results are things we like: Cheap turkey for Thanksgiving, great taquerias and flotillas of brown-skinned guys sailing through neighborhoods with lawn mowers and leaf blowers.

A recent economic analysis done for the Greater Houston Partnership found that if undocumented immigrants – I've seen estimates of 8 million to 12 million – disappeared overnight, the U.S. economy would lose nearly $1.8 trillion in annual spending.

So when I hear politicians saying the U.S. should build high walls and enforce the law against employers, it makes me wonder whether they can, really, be so naïve.

Mary Newsom is an Observer associate editor. Write her at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28030-0308, or at mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com.

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