TODD POINT -- Phil Spedden is a regular on the "liars bench" next to a roaring wood stove where locals have gathered daily for nearly 60 years in John Lewis' Grocery. They gossip, swap stories, sip coffee and wrangle over politics as somebody throws another log on the fire.
This year, the talk is often about the unusually lively race in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, where two state legislators are trying to oust Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in the Republican primary. Spedden, a retired farmer, said various views can be heard about that among the wood-stove gang here in Dorchester County.
But Spedden, 67, said there's one topic folks tend to agree on: illegal immigration. Voters who will cast ballots in the primary Tuesday see a growing number of foreign workers in their communities around the Eastern Shore and think of them as illegal.
Around here, "illegal" means criminal, and foreign workers and their families who come here without proper papers should not receive education, health care and other benefits, Spedden and many others say.
"Everybody knows we need immigrant people to do a lot of jobs that our own people won't take," said Spedden, who added that he admires the work ethic of many foreign workers.
"But we all know they've got to be legal," he said. "As soon as they come over the border, it's against our laws. We all know it's wrong to give these handouts and giveaways to ones that get here."
On the Eastern Shore, a region that depends on a large Latin American labor force - especially in the poultry, seafood and agricultural industries - immigration has become a key issue. In the far-flung district that includes the Shore and suburban slivers of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, every mailbox seems to be bulging with political fliers on the subject.
One - featuring photos of two 1st District candidates and Gov. Martin O'Malley wearing sombreros - suggests that all three favor government support of illegal immigrants and says, "Say NO to the Three Amigos."
The three leading candidates in the GOP primary - Gilchrest and state Sens. E.J. Pipkin and Andy Harris - say immigration is much on the minds of voters, and interviews around the district indicate that they're right.
Voters expressed passionate concerns about illegal immigration in Maryland and across the nation, many saying they are angry that people who don't have the right to be in the country might be getting help from government programs.
"I pay 8 percent on my commercial loans," said Millie Cusick, 46, who owns two restaurants in the town of Vienna, population 300. "I can't get grants or some government program. Where's the backing for Americans? Let's take care of our own first."
In Caroline County - where Hispanic workers and their families are believed to make up nearly 10 percent of the county's population of 31,000 - print and television ads have shown immigrants clambering over fences at the Mexican border, said John W. "Jack" Cole, a longtime county commissioner.
He called the congressional campaign the dirtiest he has ever seen. "It's just extremely depressing, offensive even," said Cole, a Republican. "Of course, immigration is a major issue, but there are other issues. We are also concerned at this level of government about maintaining our farmland, conservation to keep Caroline rural."
Cole favors issuing driver's licenses or identification cards to immigrants, an idea that has been derided by conservatives. Cole sees it as a practical issue.
"It's one of those hot-button issues that people get incensed about," Cole said. "But at the local level, it's problematic to have people you can't identify. Some kind of ID card or a driver's license is just a way to permanently identify these folks."
State planning officials estimate that about 11,000 Hispanics live on the Eastern Shore. Many are here legally, including seasonal workers in the crab, hotel and landscaping industries, but officials say they don't know how many might be here illegally.
Even illegal immigrants tend to use fake Social Security numbers to get jobs and therefore pay taxes, said Timothy J. Dunn, a sociologist at Salisbury University.
Studies in Texas and other states have found that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in medical and education benefits, Dunn said.
"In fiscal terms, the research shows it's a wash. They pay more in through Social Security, withholding and other payroll deductions than they ever get back in services," he said.
Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a friend and supporter of Gilchrest, said immigration is an emotional issue.
"Immigration has become the new single issue for some," Craig said. "It's like people who only care about the gun control or abortion or school prayer. Immigration is the new national bogeyman."
Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown, sees an element of prejudice in the debate. "For a lot of Republican primary voters, it's a red-meat issue," she said. "There's a streak of nativism here - there is a different culture, a different language. You can't quantify it, but it's a part of the overall picture. It's a simplistic blame game."
Jeanne Lynch, a former Worcester County councilwoman, has been a frequent Gilchrest ally on environmental issues. She agreed that immigration weighs on the minds of voters this year.
"Getting tough on illegal immigration is not racist," Lynch said. "We're seeing our country dissolve. I don't think we have to give free education and free medical care in order to have a work force."
Tom Harper, 48, a fourth-generation farmer from Rhodesdale in north Dorchester County, expects little if any immigration reform at the state or federal level in an election year. "We need that work force, but it's gotten way out of hand," said Harper. "Right now, it's a broken system."
Related coverage at baltimoresun.com/election2008