A Colorado congressman who is the grandson of Italian immigrants is leading the battle against President Bush on an amnesty program for illegal aliens. Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo minces no words in assailing the president of his own party for supporting a provision in immigration law that would allow thousands of illegal aliens to become legal residents.
“Mye shame that such a measure would be sponsored by our commander in chief, whose bold action against terror overseas has proven so effective, is tempered by pride that a surprisingly large majority of my party stood up to the president in voting against this ill-advised measure,” Tancredo said last month, when the House by a mere one-vote margin approved an extension of 245(i) — the provision that would allow illegal immigrants who have a job or a family connection in the United States to apply for legal status.
Bush supports 245(i) just as strongly as Tancredo opposes it.
From his heart
“I believe it comes from his heart when he is saying that he wants to expand immigration. I just think he is wrong,” Tancredo told his House colleagues.
He said Democrats oppose restrictions on immigration because they think immigration “will lead to more voters for the Democrat candidate.”
As for his own party, Tancredo said: “We certainly do not want to be seen as a party that is anti-immigration, or anti-ethnic group. ... I am not anti-immigration. I certainly have nothing against any ethnic group coming into this country. The issue is, how much, how many, for what purpose, and will we be able to control it?”
Tancredo recalls that as a child he would go for Sunday drives with his Italian immigrant grandparents.
“My grandmother would yell at my grandfather, ‘speak America,’ because it meant more to her. She knew that the word was ‘English,’ but what she was conveying was something else. She was intent, as was my grandfather, on making themselves and their children and their grandchildren American in every way that they could.”
In contrast, he contends, too many of today’s immigrants have dual citizenship and retain cultural ties to their homelands, threatening what he calls “the Balkanization of America.”
Last August, the Colorado congressman introduced legislation that would impose a near-total moratorium on immigration until the president could certify that the flow of illegal immigration had been cut to less than 10,000 people per year, a small fraction of its current level.
Tancredo is the personification of the unresolved struggle within the Republican Party over immigration.
In 1994, Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election on the strength of his support for a ballot measure that would have denied state education and medical services to illegal aliens. Sentiment against illegal immigration appeared so strong at the time that pundits spoke of Wilson as the next GOP presidential nominee.
In 1996, conservative Patrick Buchanan mounted a bid for the GOP presidential nomination built on a platform including a moratorium on immigration.
Now Tancredo has taken up the Wilson-Buchanan mantle. Like Buchanan, he calls for stationing U.S. troops along the border with Mexico to stop illegals from slipping into the United States.
Lance Wright, the Democratic candidate who’ll try to unseat Tancredo in his suburban district south of Denver in this November’s election, told MSNBC.com that “Mr. Tancredo’s shrill tone is not in tune with the views of his constituents.”
“How effective can a Congressman be if he is engaged in a public fight with a president from his own political party?” Wright asked.
He added that immigration problems “are not going to be solved by deploying troops to the borders.”
Wright called for “a more humane policy that decides how many guest workers we need, protects their rights as guest while they are here and then enforces those decisions with a secure border.”
In contrast to Tancredo, Wright praised Bush for trying to reach an accommodation with Mexico on immigration.
Tancredo’s willingness to challenge Bush on immigration policy doesn’t surprise his friends and fellow conservatives in Colorado.
“Tom is not a guy with some hidden personality. He’s irrepressibly the way he is and he acts that way in front of everybody,” says David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that Tancredo once headed.
Kopel says Tancredo’s stand on immigration “reflects his own sincere beliefs — I don’t think the immigration issue is extremely important in his district. His interest in it is not what I’d call district-driven. This is an issue that he has cared about long before he ever thought about running for Congress.”
It might seem politically masochistic for a Republican House member to defy a Republican president with 77 percent approval ratings.
But Colorado state Sen. John Andrews, an old friend of Tancredo, says, “as anyone can see on this immigration issue, he is absolutely fearless. He has made clear he’s a strong supporter of President Bush, but we’ve got to be honest with each other about these policy differences.”
A former junior high civics teacher, Tancredo served six years in the Colorado Legislature where he led the fight to cut state taxes. He later did a stint in the Reagan administration as an official of the U.S. Department of Education.
Tancredo then headed the Independence Institute and in 1998 won a seat in the House, running on a conservative platform including support for school vouchers.
Tancredo’s previous brush with fame came in 1999 when two students at Columbine High School — only a few blocks from Tancredo’s home — went on a murderous shooting rampage.
Decries moral decline
In a radio address a few months after the Columbine murders, responding to President Clinton’s call for new gun control measures, Tancredo said, “The founders knew that the republic rested on a moral foundation. The jarring tragedy at Columbine reminds us that the moral foundation is crumbling.”
He attributed the Columbine murders to nihilism, not to inadequate gun control laws.
Democrats targeted Tancredo in the 2000 elections, accusing him of being out of step with his constituents, but they were unable to defeat him.
Just as Tancredo sees America as threatened by illegal immigration, he also identifies another danger: China.
During the House debate over granting permanent trade status to China two years ago, Tancredo warned that increased U.S. investment in China would only strengthen the autocrats in Beijing.
Sooner or later the United States will confront China in a military standoff, Tancredo predicted, “and when we do, we will be facing a China armed with American technology built into Chinese missiles.”