Once shunned as a "crazy" ultraconservative, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has become a national icon for the political right because of his strident campaign against immigration.
"I’ve been traveling to every state trying to light a fire about immigration," Tancredo said at a Saturday night reception in Scottsdale for a national convention of Republican activists. "But I’m finding the fire is already raging, and I’m just grabbing the bellows to push it higher."
Tancredo leads a collection of immigration control advocates in Congress that has grown from just seven members in early 2001 to more than 70, including fellow Reps. J.D. Hayworth and Trent Franks, Arizona Republicans.
Working behind the scenes, Tancredo also helped shape the campaign message for Proposition 200, the Arizona initiative approved by voters that targets illegal immigrants.
"He’s probably been to the border more often than our own congressional delegation," said Randy Pullen of Phoenix, a leading Proposition 200 advocate and a member of the Republican National Committee. "He has an in-depth understanding of our problems and issues."
This summer, Tancredo has been traveling the country in search of backing for a possible 2008 presidential bid. While he’s a nearly impossible long-shot compared with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Tancredo received more support than the Arkansas governor and two other senators in an August political poll in New Hampshire — home of the first presidential primary every four years.
Tancredo’s political rise reflects the dramatic shift in the national debate over immigration in the past two years. First elected to Congress in 1998, Tancredo has tapped into a widespread public frustration aimed at porous international borders that long had been ignored by other politicos.
While President Bush and other prominent Republicans talk about the challenges of immigration reform, Tancredo talks about a lack of political will to protect the country. He has called for mustering the military along the border and has introduced an immigration reform bill that would allow for more temporary foreign workers, if they apply from their home countries and promise not to seek permanent U.S. residency.
That attitude was pure music Saturday to the ears of those attending the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, one of the larger and more conservative GOP activist groups in the country.
"He’s feisty. He speaks bluntly and tells like it is," said Michael Potaski, a convention delegate from Massachusetts. "That means he’s not your typical politician. He’s an honest man."
A native of Littleton, Colo., the 59-year-old former schoolteacher was a regional education administrator under presidents Ronald Reagan and the senior Bush. He honed his views on immigration and other topics as president of a Colorado conservative think tank similar to the Phoenixbased Goldwater Institute before he was elected to Congress.
But to Tancredo’s critics, the congressman portrays an emerging connection between legitimate concerns about border security and racist objections to the growing presence of Mexicans and other Latin Americans looking for a better life.
Tancredo has also called for a reduction in legal immigration, saying American culture is in danger of being overwhelmed and washed away by a tide of foreign residents who aren’t assimilating quickly enough.
And he has actively encouraged the Minuteman Project and other unauthorized civilian groups who claim to be helping the federal government by conducting their own border patrols.
"The situation on the border is tinderbox with some people armed to the teeth who are racists or affiliated with hate groups and who are being urged on by elected officials such as Tancredo," said Mark Potok, director of a Southern Poverty Law Center project that tracks hate groups.
Tancredo added fuel to the criticism in July when he told a Florida radio station the U.S. would have to consider using nuclear weapons against Islamic holy sites such as Mecca if Muslim terrorists ever detonate a nuclear device in an American city. Even many fellow immigrationcontrol advocates said Tancredo had gone too far.
But Tancredo refused to apologize, as his statements fit into his belief the war on terrorism is fundamentally a fight against a religion that desires the destruction of Western civilization, instead of a battle against a small, radical element at the edges of mainstream Islam.