A Border War

The lights were on, the cameras were rolling, but the special guest star was nowhere to be found. Last Friday afternoon, 55 men and women from 30 countries sat in a Denver conference room, clutching small American flags as they waited to be sworn in as U.S. citizens. The 12:15 starting time had come and gone, and some people were getting impatient. "For heaven's sake," one woman said, sighing. "What is the holdup?" A few minutes later, they had the answer. Tom Tancredo, the Republican congressman, was coming to welcome the new citizens. He was hard to miss when he breezed in, 25 minutes late, dressed in a dark suit and an American-flag necktie. Even so, few in the room recognized him until one man whispered, "He's the guy who sits on the border chasing illegals."

Tancredo may not be a household name yet, but he's doing everything he can to change that. As the House and Senate debate the nation's immigration and border-security laws, the four-term Coloradan has positioned himself as the loudest, angriest voice against the estimated 11 million illegal aliens now living in the United States. They are "a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation," he says. He laments "the cult of multiculturalism," and worries about America's becoming a "Tower of Babel." If Republican presidential candidates don't put the problem atop the agenda in 2008, he says he'll run himself, just to force the front runners to talk about it. Not that he thinks he'd win the White House. He declares himself "too fat, too short and too bald" to be president. If the Republicans lose the election because he's too tough on the issue, he says, "So be it."

Not so long ago, Tancredo was regarded as little more than a noisy pest on Capitol Hill. His colleagues shook their heads at his tireless demands for crackdowns on American employers who hire illegals and his idea for a 700-mile-long fence along the Mexican border. But in recent months, some of those same Republicans have come to realize that, while Tancredo may be a crank, he is a crank with a large and passionate following. Anti-immigration sentiment has always simmered, and it flares up about once a decade--the last time it hit this level was 1996, when California Gov. Pete Wilson made it the centerpiece of his failed presidential campaign. Tancredo was one of the first politicians to tap into the latest surge of anger. In states with large numbers of undocumented workers, voters complain that poor illegals are overwhelming public schools, clogging hospital emergency rooms and bankrupting welfare budgets. And they worry that inadequate border security makes it easy for would-be terrorists to sneak into the country. Tancredo's colleagues are listening. When he arrived in Washington, he started the Immigration Reform Caucus. The group attracted just 16 members. Today, there are 91.

Tancredo's anti-immigration campaign is also brazenly, almost gleefully, taking aim at George W. Bush and Karl Rove. The president had once hoped the immigration debate would center on his proposed guest-worker program, which would allow illegals--who fill millions of unskilled, low-wage jobs--to stay in the country for a set period of time. This was Bush the pragmatist, the former border-state governor who wanted to acknowledge the importance of immigrant labor to construction, fruit farming and other chunks of the U.S. economy. "He doesn't think it's morally right that a group that has been critical to the strength of the economy is operating in the shadows," says a senior Bush aide who, following policy, spoke anonymously. Meanwhile, Rove pushed the pure political benefits of the plan: immigrant-friendly policies would help the party reach out to the fast-growing Latino vote.

Instead, the immigration debate has split the GOP, with many Republicans in the House and Senate, worried about alienating voters, openly opposing the president. In December, the House tossed aside the worker program and passed a bill that features tougher security at the Mexican border--including Tancredo's cherished fence--and crackdowns on illegals who are already here. "You can't ignore him," says a GOP leadership aide who wouldn't be named because he wanted to keep his job. "The administration doesn't want to hear this, but a lot of Americans think he's right."

In the Senate, Republicans, led by John McCain and Arlen Specter, have been working to come up with a compromise that would include border security, a guest-worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to "earn" citizenship. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a presidential contender with one eye on the anti-immigration vote--and the other one on outflanking McCain--has threatened to put forward his own get-tough plan this week if the senators fail to come through.

It's not just Republicans elbowing for attention. Last week Sen. Hillary Clinton whacked the GOP with the Bible, implying anti-immigration proposals were not only hardhearted, but un-Christian. The bill, she said, "would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."

Bush, forced to step up his own security rhetoric in response to the feud, is still hoping for a compromise. At an immigration meeting at the White House last week, the president said that "the debate must be done in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against another." But Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a former Bush cabinet member who sides with the president on the issue, fears that's exactly what is happening. "Republicans have made significant gains [among Latinos]," he says, "and we're risking all of that by allowing ourselves to be positioned as anti-immigrant ... We are at great peril."

Tancredo believes there's greater danger in doing nothing. All he wants, he says, is to see the law enforced. "I don't like it when people call me a racist or xenophobe," he says. "In my heart, I know that I'm not." A 60-year-old grandson of an Italian immigrant, he grew up in a working-class family. He ran for Congress on a whim in 1998, and won by pushing immigration reform. He says he became passionate about the issue back in the 1970s, when he was a Denver junior-high-school teacher. At the time, Colorado had just passed a bilingual-education bill. He says students with Latino-sounding names were put into Spanish-language classes, even if they spoke English only. "It was ridiculous, and a total waste of time and money."

He's remained unapologetic about his views. In 2002, The Denver Post ran a human-interest story about a high-school honors student who couldn't get college financial aid because he was in the United States illegally. Tancredo tried to have the boy and his family deported. (He was unsuccessful.)

Back at the immigration ceremony, Tancredo thanked the new citizens for coming to the United States "the right way," and urged them to "cast aside loyalties to your old countries and walk with us." One lucky person walked away with more than a citizenship certificate. When he heard that a young woman from Mexico had waited more than a year for her paperwork to clear, Tancredo approached her. He apologized that he was out of the lapel pins he usually hands out. Instead, he gave her a more personal gift: his American-flag necktie. "Gracias," she said.