From the Border to the Oval Office
Tom Tancredo drops the bomb—that he’s testing the waters for a run at the White House.
By Joshua Zaffos
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, July 28, 2005
Tom Tancredo is running for president.
No, that’s not a promise…it’s a threat.
The four-term Republican congressman from Colorado’s Sixth District is traveling the country talking about locking down our national borders and kicking out the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. And if other would-be 2008 presidential candidates don’t start following his lead, he’s ready to carry the anti-immigration banner on his own run for the White House.
“I want to see what they’ll promise to do to control the border, what they’ll promise to do to enforce the law internally in the United States against [businesses] who are hiring people who are here illegally,” says Tancredo, who lives in Littleton. “My purpose is to instigate that kind of discussion.”
The congressman certainly knows how to instigate. Most recently, his comments on a Florida talk-radio show on July 15 that an “ultimate response” to a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States could include bombing Mecca and other Islamic holy sites invoked worldwide scorn. In Colorado, 150 people gathered at the State Capitol on July 26 to say they’re embarrassed Tancredo represents the state.
He isn’t apologizing. Instead, Tancredo’s unabashedly touring the nation to ensure the “ultimate immigration reform guy”—perhaps himself—gets heard during the next presidential election. His explosive presence will be hard for contenders for the Oval Office to dodge.
In February and June, Tancredo stopped by New Hampshire, which holds the earliest state primary each presidential election. In mid-July, he swung through Iowa, home of the first party caucus, to meet with Christian Coalition members who gave him a rock-star reception. He’s also visited South Carolina, another early primary state, and will return in August.
“I commend him for what he’s doing,” says Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform and a Tancredo supporter. “The immigration problem is a symptom that our government is no longer responsible to our people and the rule of law.”
Pundits say there’s a good reason most politicians don’t talk about immigration.
“It’s another one of the hot-button issues that people feel passionately about on both sides,” says John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor.
In other words, most candidates treat immigration, like abortion, as a topic that will cost them votes instead of winning them support. As Tancredo beats the drum for immigration control, Straayer believes he’s effectively pressuring colleagues to talk about the subject and take a stance.
“From a citizen standpoint, it’s never a bad thing to elevate a critical issue,” adds Straayer.
From a party standpoint, it’s another thing. President Bush has introduced a guest-worker plan that would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants already working in the U.S.— as long as they leave after five years and then reapply for legal entry. Tancredo’s own guest-worker proposal would make every illegal immigrant a felon and boost law enforcement along the borders. He says Bush’s legislation is among the spoils for corporations who contribute big money to the GOP and rely on low-cost immigrant labor.
“When you try to equivocate on [immigration policy] because you think you’ve got big donors who are going to get mad at you,” says Tancredo, “you take a hit, and it’s both a political and moral failing.”
Statements like this win standing ovations and teary hugs from “values” voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina who appreciate his combination of John McCain-style honesty and Pat Buchanan-style conservatism. But those words also bring rebukes from Republican heavyweights at the national level.
In 2002, Bush’s political guru Karl Rove called Tancredo a “traitor” who was “never again to darken the door of the White House.” That ominous caveat came after the congressman told the Washington Times, “Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we’re going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress.”
Last year, during the primary season, Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay told Tancredo he was “kaput.”
“You cannot think of making a career in this place [Congress],” DeLay warned.
Tancredo earned that scolding after his Team America political action committee—which he co-founded with Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister—gave money to party candidates running against incumbent GOP colleagues with pro-immigration voting records.
Ongoing scandals over the ethics of both Rove and DeLay now make Tancredo look squeaky-clean and righteous in these exchanges, which is why he believes Republicans—and Democrats—won’t be able to duck the issue in 2008.
“I think the smart political money is on the side that takes up this issue, Republican or Democrat,” says Tancredo. “Why do you think you see people like Hillary Clinton addressing it? I mean it isn’t because she believes it. It’s because she figures she’s got to win some of those red-state votes.”
Gabriela Flora agrees with Tom Tancredo that “the immigration system is broken.” But the regional organizer in Colorado for the national social justice group American Friends Service Committee is not convinced that Tancredo’s plan—to line the borders with soldiers and deport every single undocumented worker in the U.S.—is the solution. She says an increase in border troops since the 1990s has led to more deaths among immigrants sneaking into the country but failed to decrease immigration rates.
Tancredo argues that securing the borders isn’t just a matter of restricting the entry of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, but also one of homeland security.
“I think that those are both legitimate issues that revolve around the whole immigration debate,” says Tancredo. “Last fiscal year, we interdicted almost 30,000 people from what we call ‘countries of interest.’ So, you say to yourself, ‘Who would be being smuggled in here for somewhere up to $50,000 a head?’ It’s not someone who’s just going to work for 7-Eleven. So, there’s got to be another reason that they’re coming in, and it’s probably not a very good one.”
Responds Flora, “I think the war on terror is a very convenient way to conflate the issue. We need to talk about [immigration], not from a place of fear, but from a place of freedom and liberty.”
Tancredo clearly wants to do both. Even before he began “throwing out some ideas” about bombing Mecca, he warned a crowd in New Hampshire this June that illegal immigrants are “coming here to kill you and you and me and my grandchildren.”
“If it gets to the point that his commentary is so continuous and explosive,” says Straayer, the political science professor, “his side suffers.”
But as long as immigration is being discussed, Tancredo acts like he’s winning—even if it triggers a political chasm within the Republican Party or a backlash against the U.S.
“I think, frankly, I won’t have to run for president,” says Tancredo.
Politicians are “almost as afraid now of running away [from the immigration issue] as they were in the past of embracing it,” he continues. “So, probably, we’re going to get one or more people fighting to see who can out-Tom-Tancredo each other, and so that would be good.”
If that’s what Americans end up voting on in 2008, will anybody be able to out-Tom-Tancredo the man himself?