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Tancredo rides high on immigration

The GOP candidate's solution: Seal the border and send 'em back. In Iowa, he finds many voters onboard.

July 05, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

AMES, IOWA — Tom Tancredo is used to anger and hostility. But success is something else. So when the Senate buckled under a wave of popular protest and rejected an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Tancredo wasn't sure how people would respond.

The five-term Republican congressman from Colorado is not just the hard-line face of immigration reform. His run for the GOP presidential nomination is based entirely on a platform that can be summarized in a single sentence: Seal the border and send 'em back.

A three-day Iowa swing, after the Senate bill's collapse last week, was a triumphal lap of sorts. But it was also a test: Would victory stoke the forces that helped kill the legislation? Or, Tancredo wondered, would followers say, "Geez, we've won the day. Let's go home now."

He needn't have worried. The people who burned up talk radio and filled the Internet with their fury, who blitzed the White House with their faxes and e-mails, who crashed the Senate switchboard with their indignant phone calls are still spitting mad.

"People want something done," said Al Manning, 50, the owner of a sandwich shop in Waterloo who drove more than 250 miles to hear the congressman speak twice over the weekend. "We need to stop the inflow of illegals, and we need to deal with the ones that are already in the country."

Those sentiments were echoed in numerous interviews at Tancredo campaign stops and a Des Moines presidential forum that drew hundreds of conservative activists. (Of the six candidates who spoke, Tancredo received the best reception, coming and going to standing ovations.)

There was also widespread doubt that the Senate bill, which combined tougher enforcement with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, was really, truly dead.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "is willing to do backroom negotiations and then stick it on the Senate floor without debate, that tells me, if he has a chance, he will bring it up at the next opportunity," said David Connon, 46, a substitute teacher from the outskirts of Des Moines.

John Makow agreed. His family emigrated from Poland in 1962 after waiting four years to come to the United States "the right way" -- so the issue is personal for the 58-year-old retired systems analyst from Granger.

Makow suggested that President Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another Republican White House hopeful and a leading proponent of the bill, "got too much at stake" to quit now. "They're going to keep bringing it up, and we're going to keep fighting," Makow said.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey last month found that about 4 in 10 Republican primary voters nationwide said immigration was the most important issue facing the country. (That compared with a quarter of Democratic primary voters.) The figure was probably high, inflated by the intense emotions stirred by the Senate debate, but few see the debate ending with the bill's demise.

"The issue is not going away," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Des Moines' Drake University. "The only question is how much will be subject to demagoguery and how much subject to some reasoned discussion."

Tancredo's immigration prescription is simple.

First, secure the borders, doing whatever it takes. Build a fence -- or two or three -- along the borders with Canada and Mexico. Station armed guards to block illegal entry. Then, go after businesses that hire illegal workers, hitting employers with massive fines and, if need be, criminal charges.

Also, bring criminal cases -- aiding and abetting -- against mayors and city council members who establish "sanctuary cities" that prevent city employees from cooperating with federal immigration agents. (Yes, that would have included Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, back when he was mayor of New York.)

Once the jobs dry up, the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally -- or 20 million, by Tancredo's count -- will go home. No need for the jackboot immigration raids that are conjured up by his many critics.

"Attrition through enforcement," Tancredo called it, sipping green iced tea on a shady patio before opening his campaign office in Ames, home of Iowa State University. "If people cannot get the thing for which they came -- a job -- they go home."

Some look at the immigration issue and see a complicated and confounding tangle of interests and emotions. Not Tancredo.

"I have a solution," he told a Friday night crowd of about 100 at the Quality Inn in downtown Des Moines. "It's a radical one. Scary. Enormously controversial." Then he paused and spaced his words for effect. "It's called: Enforce ... the ... law."

Blunt talk like that is a big part of Tancredo's appeal.

To Belinda Lawler, it's simple. When she called the offices of Iowa's U.S. senators, the pharmaceutical consultant from Gilbert demanded: "What part of the term 'illegal alien' don't you understand?"

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