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Immigration Critic Stirs Controversy, Sees Gains

By JULIA MALONE / Cox Washington Bureau 06-21-02

WASHINGTON -- Tom Tancredo, a former civics teacher, clearly never bought into the old adage that newcomers in the U.S. House of Representatives had better go along to get along.

In only his second term, the Colorado Republican has emerged as the most outspoken congressional advocate for tightening American immigration policy.

And along the way, he has clashed not only with liberal groups, but also with leaders of his own party, going all the way to the White House.

To supporters, Tancredo has the daring to point to the costs and challenges of historically high numbers of legal and illegal immigrants.

To detractors, Tancredo, the grandson of Italian immigrants, is a xenophobe.

In any case, Tancredo has energized the opposition to President Bush's attempts to legalize some of America's estimated 8.5 million illegal immigrants.

At a time when the White House is drawing closer to Mexico, Tancredo draws attention to Mexico's failure to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

And even as officials announce they are closing immigration loopholes exploited by the foreign terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks, Tancredo says it will be two years before the measures take effect.

"I've been twice to the borders" since Sept. 11, Tancredo said in an interview this week. "I'm convinced that they absolutely are no more secure today than they were then."

Tancredo and fellow members of his congressional Immigration Reform Caucus this week launched a petition drive to urge the president to send as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to guard America's 6,000 miles of land borders.

The idea was quickly rejected at the White House. "It is not the plan or the intention to militarize our borders," said homeland security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Nearly 1,400 National Guard troops who were dispatched to help manage the borders in the past nine months will not be replaced, Johndroe said. In the future, additional Border Patrol agents and Customs Service inspectors will be reinforcing the borders.

As for the state of security since Sept. 11, the administration spokesman differed with Tancredo. "We have a way to go, but it certainly is better," he said.

Going against the grain is nothing new for Tancredo, who first became concerned about the rising numbers of newcomers when Colorado began requiring bilingual education for non-English speakers in the mid 1970s.

"No matter what you say, you end up at a time where the child is not fluent enough," he said. "So their educational progress is always retarded."

Tancredo left his junior high teaching job to run for the state legislature, where he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to repeal the bilingual program. So heated were the debates, he said, that his tires were slashed and hate notes were left on his car windshield.

He later took a job as regional director for President Ronald Reagan's U.S. Department of Education, where he proceeded to cut the staff by two-thirds, a move that brought Democratic demands that he be fired.

Later, he drew fire as president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden that published a study concluding that low-skilled immigrants cost taxpayers more in services than they contribute in revenues.

As a candidate for Congress in 1998 in his well-heeled Denver suburban district, he ran on platform of individual freedoms and lower taxes. But on Capitol Hill he is best known for galvanizing a handful of lawmakers into the Immigration Reform Caucus.

"We had a loose-knit organization 'til Tom came," said Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican who said that a decade of legal and illegal immigration has strained his north Georgia district's schools and health care services.

Membership in the immigration caucus, only 15 before the terrorists struck, has surged to 64.

Deal credits Tancredo with forcing Congress to face an issue that many politicians would prefer to avoid, as both parties seek to win favor with immigrants and their millions of current and future voters.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council for La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, has watched the GOP attempts to woo newcomers.

"I think there is a tug of war going on in the Republican Party over immigration issues," she said.

"On the one hand, there is this major effort to recharacterize this party as a party that believes in a nation of immigrants," she said, citing efforts by Bush and other GOP leaders to reach out to immigrants.

"On the other hand, we have voices like Mr. Tancredo's," she said, adding that his views are off-putting to Latinos, including those who are native-born Americans.

A Republican ally of the president echoed that analysis. "It's not a vote-winning strategy to be anti-immigration," said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform.

Moreover, Tancredo's outspoken remarks have apparently earned the ire of Karl Rove, the top White House political adviser. After the congressman told "The Washington Times" that the president was an "open borders" advocate because of his amnesty plan for illegal aliens, Tancredo said that the next day as he was pulling out of his driveway, his cell phone rang. It was Rove, who proceeded to lambaste him as he navigated the rush hour traffic to the Capitol.

According to Tancredo, the White House aide told him, "Don't ever darken the doorstep of this White House."

The White House did not return a call seeking comment on the dispute.

The congressman said he regrets that it means he will not get to know Bush "because my impression of him is that he's a very compassionate fellow."

The flap also cost him one of his caucus members. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., dropped out. "He believes President Bush has led this country extraordinarily well in the war on terror, as well as keeping our borders safe," said Foley spokesman Christopher J. Paulitz.

Even so, Tancredo argues that the public sides with him on the immigration issue. He points to a Zogby International poll taken last month that indicates that 68 percent of the public favors putting troops on the borders, 58 percent favor reducing the number of immigrants accepted annually, and only 23 percent favor amnesty for residents who are here illegally.

Such polling numbers have not assured legislative victories for Tancredo.

For example, Munoz notes that Tancredo's proposal for a temporary moratorium on immigration, which she labels as "xenophobic," has gone nowhere in Congress.

Tancredo passionately rejects the charge of xenophobia. Settling into a vintage leather chair in his office, he delighted this week as he thumbed through e-mails and found a letter that was posted on the Dallas Morning News Internet Website.

"I am one of the 'unsavory' individuals who back Tom Tancredo on immigration reform and the end of illegal immigration," said the writer, who added "I am Hispanic."

Tancredo challenges his opponents to find anything racial or xenophobic in the many words he has written or spoken. "I believe that my heart is pure when it comes to this issue, especially when it comes to race," he said.

He acknowledges that some of his proposals have hit a brick wall. But he asks an aide to bring in a poster board with the agenda items that his immigration caucus has been urging since last fall.

First on the list is formation of a consolidated border security agency, an idea that the president at first rejected but has now fully embraced.

"Was this because of my caucus? No," Tancredo said. "But was it partly because of the pressure we put on him? Yes."

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