People either love Tom Tancredo, the Republican representative from Colorado's 6th District (home of Columbine High School), or they hate him. But they all agree on one thing: He is a man of character. Indeed, he has defined his political career by his principled stand on immigration. In September 2002, after reading a glowing Denver Post profile of an 18-year-old undocumented immigrant honor student, he reported the student's family to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, forcing the family to go into hiding.
Tancredo's principles have frequently set him against members of his own party -- including President George W. Bush. Ever since Bush entered the White House, promising to reach an immigration accord with Mexican President Vicente Fox, Tancredo has accused him of pandering to Hispanic voters. In April 2002, as the Associated Press reported, Tancredo got an angry phone call from Karl Rove, who chewed him out for 40 minutes and told him, "Never darken the doorstep of the White House again."
But today Bush is on the defensive. His plan to grant guest-worker permits to immigrants has been met with a maelstrom of right-wing anger, thrusting Tancredo to the forefront of a mounting revolt.
In California, Arizona, and Colorado, conservatives are propelling anti-immigrant ballot measures. And in the Republican primaries, some of Bush's staunchest congressional allies are facing challenges from candidates who are exploiting the anti-Bush, anti-immigrant sentiment. The intraparty division could cause a blowback, provoking outraged Hispanic Democrats to turn out to the polls in high numbers. In Arizona, a battleground state with a high Hispanic and conservative white population, the combination spells trouble for Bush.
As Mike Madrid, a Republican operative who handled Hispanic outreach for Bush's gubernatorial campaigns, says, the guest-worker plan was calculated to provoke opposition. "You have the left going nuts on one side of [Bush], saying the guest-worker plan doesn't go far enough," he explains. "And you have the right going nuts on the other, saying it goes too far. It makes [Bush] look moderate, like a compassionate conservative. It's that symbolism that defines a political strategy."
The plan suggests a revival of the middle-ground strategy on immigration issues seen during Bush's tenure as governor of Texas, where he tried to avoid demonizing Hispanics while mollifying Republicans. According to Madrid, Bush's message was, "Anyone who's willing to walk through 300 miles of desert for $6 an hour is someone I want working in Texas." And in this year's 2004 State of the Union address, he described his guest-worker plan as "good for our economy because employers will find needed workers in an honest and orderly system."
Yet conservatives had already been rumbling about a $2.4 trillion White House budget -- with an increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The guest-worker plan thus became a lighting rod for their indignation.
"This is something that's got the Republican base energized in a way that other nonconservative policies -- like the increase in funding for the NEA -- won't necessarily," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank in Washington. "This is something that gets people's blood pumping when they get up in the morning."
At a House Republican retreat in Philadelphia on January 29, the anger was unleashed. When top Bush aides asked members of Congress at the retreat what the most important issue was among their constituencies, "[A]lmost immediately, everyone was saying, 'Immigration. Immigration,'" says Tancredo's press secretary, Carlos Espinosa. Tancredo lapped it up. "Tom was sitting there smiling like a little kid -- you should have seen him," adds Espinosa. "He was so excited that people were finally starting to speak out about immigration."
A week after the retreat, Tancredo toughened the language of a ballot measure he'd introduced to bar undocumented immigrants from social services with added restrictions on vaccinations and library cards. The measure is designed not only to drive immigrants from the state but also to nullify Bush's guest-worker program if it were enacted. In California, a similar measure called Save Our State has been proposed. On February 21, hundreds of supporters rallied outside the state GOP convention. Tancredo was a keynote speaker, saying he knew a gynecologist who regularly asked patients about Bush's guest-worker plan and found it rated "right below genital herpes."
Meanwhile, Arizona state Representative Randy Graf, the majority whip in a right-wing-dominated legislature, has written another anti-immigrant measure, Protect Arizona Now, which, according to Arizona PBS affiliate KAET, enjoys the support of 82 percent of registered Republican voters.
Despite the popularity of these measures among Republicans, Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Bill Owens of Colorado, as well as other GOP leaders, have handled them with caution. That's not surprising. In 1994, then-California Governor Pete Wilson endorsed an anti-immigrant ballot measure, Proposition 187, that sent Hispanics flocking to the Democratic Party, helping it capture the governorship and a majority in the legislature by 1998.
Yet it's voter turnout that most worries Republicans. "When Latinos can be influential is not when they become more Democratic, because they're already pretty Democratic. It's when some issue or leader drives more of them to turn out," says Louis DiSipio, a political-science professor at the University of California, Irvine. DiSipio says the ballot measures "will confirm the sense Latinos already have that the Republicans are not to be trusted."
A gaggle of Republican candidates running on anti-immigration platforms may widen the rift between the GOP and Hispanics. Among them is Jim Oberweis, an Illinois dairy baron running for U.S. Senate who says he has "10,000 reasons" to be in the race. Those reasons are, of course, the 10,000 "illegal aliens" who are entering the country each day. And in Arizona, Graf is getting ready to challenge incumbent Representative Jim Kolbe, an author of Bush's guest-worker plan.
While Kolbe may be popular among suburban voters, he is not well-received in rural Cochise County, Arizona, a key entry point for migrants from Mexico. At a January 15 town meeting, demonstrators there heckled Kolbe and displayed an effigy of a murdered border-patrol agent marked "Bush Amnesty." Later, they piled trash -- supposedly left on their property by migrants -- in the doorway of Kolbe's county field office.
"[Kolbe] has turned his back on America," Todd Evans, president of the Southeast Arizona Republicans Club, told the Sierra Vista Herald after the meeting. "Many of us believe he doesn't deserve to be a Republican. We have been betrayed by his ideas."
Two days later, Tancredo spoke at a fundraiser for the Cochise County Republican Committee and was greeted warmly by a crowd that included local officials -- and Graf. Many chanted, "Tancredo for president!"
In his speech, Tancredo vowed to support Bush while redoubling his efforts to sink the guest-worker plan. "This is a basic fundamental difference about how we view the future of the country, and despite supporting the president, this is not a fight I will walk away from," he said, according to the Herald.
Graf says he's still loyal to Bush, though he's concerned that other Arizona Republicans may not be. "When we go to the polls, President Bush won Arizona four years ago and we expect him to win again. But there is a part of the population that's questionable right now," he says. "You think someone like Bush, who's from a border state, would be somewhat more sympathetic to the culture down here."