Jocelyne ZABLIT

AFP - Every weekday, year-round, Esteban Yanez rises at the crack of dawn and heads to his job as a construction worker near the largely Hispanic desert town of Perris, south of Los Angeles.

On weekends, he does odd jobs to complement his salary. Though the 49-year-old father of four pays income tax and social security, he has no annual vacation, no health insurance and no work benefits.

Yanez, who is Mexican, is among the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States at the heart of a contentious debate that has stirred up passions and become a defining issue in the presidential race.

Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and presumptive Republican nominee, has made deporting America's entire illegal immigrant population and building a wall on the US border with Mexico a centerpiece of his campaign.

His inflamed rhetoric, constantly hammered home at campaign appearances, has resonated with a large part of the US electorate, but has also enraged many, including people like Yanez who call America home.

"I came here 16 years ago in search of the American dream and to offer my kids a better future," Yanez told AFP during a recent meeting at the end of his 12-hour workday. "And I do the kind of backbreaking work that only immigrants are willing to do. Others don't want to get their hands dirty with this kind of job."

'They're here to stay'

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, almost a quarter (2.67 million) of the nation's undocumented immigrants live in California, where they make up slightly more than six percent of the state's population of nearly 40 million.

The majority hail from Mexico and work in farming, construction, housekeeping, elderly care, landscaping or for moving and transport companies. "We work, we pay our dues, we take no handouts and we are not hurting anyone," sighed Maria Delosangeles, 52, who arrived in the US from Mexico 18 years ago and works as a housekeeper in the Los Angeles area.

"How does it adversely affect Trump for us to be here?"

Nationwide, undocumented immigrants collectively pay almost $12 billion a year in state and local taxes, with more than $3.1 billion coming from California alone, according to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Advocates emphasize that they reap no benefits from their contributions.

"These people are as much a part of our landscape and culture as anyone else that's here," said Harold McClarty, a farmer in central California - a region known as "America's salad bowl" - and head of the California Fresh Fruit Association.

"We need to recognize that they're here to stay and that it's ridiculous to say we're going to send them back because that's beyond not practical - it's immoral," he added.

America would go hungry

McClarty and other immigration reform advocates emphasize that were millions of undocumented farmworkers kicked out, as Trump would have it, America would essentially go hungry.

They point, as an example, to the state of Georgia, where an immigration crackdown in 2011 backfired, leading to crops rotting in fields and the agriculture industry losing tens of millions of dollars for lack of other "legal" labourers willing to take on such work.

"The country's economy would basically collapse if we didn't have undocumented workers," said Los Angeles-based Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-activist, who came out as an undocumented immigrant several years ago.

Vargas, founder of Define America, a non-profit that tries to humanize the debate over immigration, said if anything, Trump's rhetoric had forced the issue to the forefront and could finally spur immigration reform.

"Trump has opened the conversation and, in some ways, this really is a defining moment for all of us to try and figure out whether we keep hiding, or do we show people who we are," said Vargas, 35, who was born in the Philippines and was raised by his grandparents in the United States from the age of 12.

The community suffered a setback on Thursday, however, when the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to President Barack Obama's plan to spare millions from being deported and to allow them to legally work in the country. A tie vote by the justices left in place a lower court ruling blocking Obama's plan.

'Nothing to hide'

The mounting frustration of this growing population living in the shadows was evident during interviews with several undocumented workers who willingly shared their identity and their stories, expressing anger at how their community has been demonized.

Jaime and Ana Flores, who arrived in the US from Mexico 27 years ago and now run a landscaping service in Perris, proudly pointed out that their modest success had come by the sweat of their brow.

Their 25-year-old son works in finance and their daughter, 21, hopes to be a vet. Both are American citizens, having been born in the United States. "We left our country because we had no other choice if we wanted a future," said Jaime, 50, standing under a beating sun as he took a break from mowing a customer's lawn.

"We start work at six every day and stop 12 to 14 hours later," he added. "And every day, we know we risk being deported but we have no other choice."

His wife, Ana, 44, said the hateful speech directed at their community was a bitter pill to swallow. "Mr Trump needs to take a hard look at himself and consider that every time he eats salad, vegetables or fruit, an immigrant picked and quality-tested that food," she said.

"This country was built by immigrants and this has become our home," she added. "We are proud of who we are and we have nothing to hide apart from the fact that we are undocumented."–AFP