Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo characteristically spent the day after the election as he had spent the days before the election, staying in touch with loyal supporters while also trying to offset the adverse effects of the latest unflattering news stories. It is a balancing act that will dog him the rest of his political career.
Tancredo, despite having been tagged for what the media repeatedly calls his “anti-immigration (or sometimes anti-Hispanic) views,’’ just won a third congressional term by a better than 2-to-1 margin. Lance Wright, his lackluster Democratic opponent, did not help himself politically by making energy conservation his main, if not his only, campaign theme.
The congressman, who chairs the Immigration Reform Caucus in the House of Representatives is, of course, no newcomer to immigration controversies. As a freshman he signed on as a sponsor to the Mass Immigration Reduction Act, a measure that would have cut annual legal immigration totals in half. He has also advocated stronger enforcement of border security and helped to build the ranks of the caucus to its present 62 members.
Still, it was something of a surprise when he attracted a storm of negative coverage in the weeks before the election. The coverage was triggered when Tancredo asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to investigate the family of an Aurora, Colo. honor student, Jesus Apodaca, who had been featured in an August front-page Denver Post story advocating that in-state college tuition rates be provided to illegal aliens. A number of groups that favor open borders, amnesty programs, and the general non-enforcement of immigration laws jumped at the opportunity to criticize Tancredo for picking on a high school honor student who merely wanted to attend a state college and study computer science. Some critics accused Tancredo of using the Apodaca case as a calculated attention-getting device, saying he invited the adverse publicity to advance his anti-immigration agenda.
In a post-election interview with The American Conservative, Tancredo said the resulting publicity, in fact, surprised him. He said he decided to call the INS only because Apodaca’s family had been flaunting its illegal status. He also said he objected to the role of the Mexican consulate in Denver, which aided the Post in putting together the original story, a story plainly designed to advance one of the policies advocated by Mexican President Vicente Fox.
The day after the election, Tancredo was taking a string of calls from supporters telling each one in turn that his re-election should be viewed as proof that “you can talk about immigration and live to tell about it.” There were times in the weeks leading up to the election, Tancredo admitted, when things did not seem quite so bright.
The Denver Post particularly appeared to have decided that Tancredo’s views on immigration were simply too loony to survive public scrutiny. The Post ran stories designed to show that Tancredo was an outcast in his own political party and also reported that a firm Tancredo hired to do a basement remodeling project employed at least two illegal aliens. These two unnamed workers, the Post reporter said, felt it necessary to come forward “as a matter of principle.”
The Post ultimately shocked its readers by nonetheless endorsing Tancredo with what must rank as one of the most backhanded editorials ever written. “Frankly,” the Post intoned, “We would love to be able to endorse Tancredo’s Democratic opponent, Parker town councilman, Lance Wright … but Wright actually told the editorial board that the solution to terrorism was for the U.S. to stop importing foreign oil.’’ The editorial went on to recommend that the Republicans find a serious primary challenger to take on Tancredo in 2004 and promised that the newspaper would support “anyone—Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or whatever” at that time.
What is even more remarkable is that the Post’s endorsement appears positively generous compared to the Rocky Mountain News’s. The News endorsed the hapless Wright solely on the grounds that Tancredo had originally promised to serve only three terms and shortly before the election took back that pledge, a move the newspaper found unforgivable. That Tancredo has survived this barrage of bad local publicity raises a couple of questions:
The first, and most important, is what he is likely to contribute to the immigration reform effort in the coming term. Tancredo answered this question by listing a number of reasons why prospects for immigration reform are somewhat improved. He noted that soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has said he favors troops on the Mexican border and pointed out that the Homeland Security Bill provides, at long last, for the separation of the INS “welcome wagon” and enforcement functions. Still, he said, the reform move- ment is likely to remain a defensive action, at least in the near term. “When I first thought about the election results I was pleased for the Republican victories,” he said. “The more I thought about it though, I realized that President Bush will get most of the credit and that raises the question of how he will use his popularity. I know this. If he wants an amnesty bill, we don’t have the votes to stop him.” Tancredo went on to speculate that the administration may have backed away from its earlier embrace of an amnesty program. Partly, he said, that may simply be because the war on terrorism will continue to consume so much of the president’s attention. There is, in any case, no prospect for a major rewrite of immigration policy, he said. The best that can be hoped for is to nibble around the edges of immigration issues. “Our posture,” he said, “is still defensive.”
Tancredo has repeatedly claimed that the current immigration policies are kept in place only because they have a high degree of support from both the Democratic and Republican parties. “The Democratic Party sees it as a source of a lot of potential votes,” he said, “and the Republican Party sees it as a source of a lot of cheap labor.”
The congressman is considering sponsoring a bill that would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act and establish a “nonimmigrant guest worker program for temporary unskilled workers.” It is hard to tell from his post-election comments exactly how serious he is on this subject. In writing the bill, he said, it became obvious why any kind of guest worker program is problematic. If the proposal contains the kind of protections that he believes it must, it is unlikely to attract Democratic support. And some groups that favor restricted immigration policies have already objected to Tancredo’s bill on other grounds and promised to give him an earful if they get the opportunity.
His proposal would provide for up to a half-million guest worker positions and create a “new non-immigrant category.” Workers in the program would be entitled to sign up for one year of assured employment with a one-year renewal option. The bill contains standards for how one is to apply, what identification would be required, and what penalties may be imposed for violations. For example, the final paycheck could be withheld until the worker has “departed the United States.” Under the act, “An alien who fails to depart from the United States within 21 days after the expiration of the alien’s authorized period of stay in the United States shall be ineligible for any further participation in the program for a period of 10 years.” Finally, no “non-working” members of the family would be entitled to move to the United States.
Tancredo’s office emphasizes that the bill would provide for a “secure entry/ exit system” that would ensure that all guest workers leave when they are supposed to and that they can be tracked if they attempt to “disappear inside the country.”
Even this brief description of the bill’s provisions, however, demonstrates why the measure is almost certain to be attacked from both sides. Many congressional Democrats favor a guest worker program that begins by granting permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of families who are already here illegally. Tancredo’s draft bill, in contrast, provides that illegal aliens who have not been identified for removal, and who can show a three-year residency in the United States without acceptance of any public assistance, could apply during an initial 12-month period. Following that period, no resident alien could apply for a guest worker permit. This is an exception that many proponents of immigration reform will not welcome.
These provisions are among the factors that have led many Americans to conclude that the best way to reduce the adverse economic and social impacts of illegal immigration is to reduce the number of illegal aliens. Some will oppose the bill simply because a guest worker program will create new enforcement difficulties and provide an excuse for not dealing with the larger issue of reducing the number of illegal aliens already in the U.S.
The second question raised by Tancredo’s victory is what kind of news coverage the congressman’s activities will attract. Before the votes were even counted the answer to that question became obvious. During the election night celebration, Tancredo discovered that what he called a “slip of the tongue” could land him in trouble.
His victory speech produced an immediate controversy over whether he had used the word “retards” to describe some Democrats. Tancredo said he was trying to pronounce the word “retreads” to describe such candidates as former Vice President Walter Mondale but that when his “tongue got tied up” it sounded like “retards.”
As it was, the Denver Post ran the story under the headline, “Tancredo Catches Heat for Retards Comment.” According to the Post, Tancredo said, “There is nothing, nothing about this Democratic Party that calls itself the party of the future. But what does it present but mothball candidates, old retards, retreads that they bring back over and over again?” The use of the word “mothball” and the phrase “over and over again” indicates the congressman was indeed thinking of “retreads” and not “retards,” but the story was nonetheless eagerly picked up by newspaper reporters and by television outlets. As for the heat Tancredo supposedly caught, it came from a woman who saw the comment broadcast on television and told the Post, “I’m not so sure it was a slip.” The story was utterly silent on how she came to be contacted and asked for her reaction to the comment.
The obvious point here is that Tancredo cannot reasonably expect more favorable coverage in the future. What that means, one suspects, is that it may be more difficult to get his message through the continuing clatter over how “extreme” his views are.
There was additional evidence of this just before the election when a spokesman for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb referred to Tancredo in derisive terms, saying, “His personal publicity campaign against the nation’s Hispanic community has grown beyond offensive. He is now acting like a bratty child who is crying for attention. Maybe if we all ignore him, he will go away.” These angry remarks were prompted by the objection of Tancredo and others to Webb’s announcement that the city of Denver would henceforth recognize cards issued by the Mexican consulate to thousands of illegal aliens as “official identification.” The congressman says he is continuing to investigate whether there is anything that can be done to stop Mexican consulates from issuing these cards or to prevent cities from accepting them.
While Tancredo is something of a new face on the national stage, it is not hard to predict how he will behave in the future. Throughout his career in Colorado, which included service in the state legislature, he has never run from controversy. He gained early attention as a member of what was called the “House crazies,” a group of Republicans who endorsed what were called “radical” ideas.
The congressman, a former teacher, remembers that one of his first acts in the state legislature was to introduce a bill that would have repealed or greatly modified (he cannot remember which) the mandatory school attendance law. He also recalls that every year, for a number of years, he sponsored legislation designed to cut off funding for bilingual education. Now, 25 years later, he still thinks both of those early proposals are good ideas.
Although the media generally assume that Tancredo formulated his views on immigration once he got to Congress, that is not the case. As the head of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., Tancredo commissioned a study on the economic impacts of illegal immigration. The resulting paper surprised and fascinated him because it showed “for the first time” what those impacts were in Colorado. As he has done with any number of other public policy issues, he has continued to learn more about immigration and how to use his knowledge to advance policy improvements. He has made it a point in all of his public speeches to differentiate between those who come to this country legally and those who come illegally. He says he likes to go to naturalization ceremonies and to congratulate new citizens for “doing it the right way.”
Tancredo has long been aware that because of the lopsided registration in his congressional district, he could be challenged in a Republican primary. Roll Call recently predicted such a challenge in 2004, citing Tancredo’s earlier run-in with Bush political advisor, Karl Rove, who reportedly warned him “never to darken the door of the White House again” after the congressman said that Bush was pandering to Hispanic voters. Therefore, it is thought the White House might want to see someone other than Tancredo representing Colorado’s Sixth District. The problem with this theory, however, is that the voters of the district make it quite clear they are not bothered by Tancredo’s immigration views. n
Al Knight is a Denver Post columnist.