Editor's note: Tom Tancredo dropped
out of the Republican primary on Dec. 20.
For presidential candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., his trademark
support for tough immigration policies has nothing to do with
race or ethnicity -- it's an issue, he says, that has everything
to do with defining what being an American "actually means
his long-shot campaign for president, his myopic focus on the
immigration issue has both helped influence the debate among Republicans
and provoked charges of xenophobia and racism from some of his
But the congressman, who has been a long-time crusader to curb
the flow of illegal immigrants, is adamant that current U.S. immigration
trends pose a real danger to the future of the nation. Unlike
earlier waves of immigration to the U.S. from Ireland, Italy or
Russia, he argues that new immigrants, primarily from Latin
America, have adopted a culture that encourages separatism and
that this threatens America. He has made this cultural and social
issue the cornerstone of his campaign, hoping to further the debate.
"Because we have so many differences among us, because we
come from so many different places, so many different backgrounds,
cultures, attitudes, ideas, religions, we need something to hold
us together," Tancredo told the Online NewsHour in an interview.
" When you come to the United States, there's got to be some
common set of ideas, ideals maybe, that you attach yourself to,
and that, in of itself, separates you from the past."
Another factor that makes this most recent immigration trend
different historically, according to the congressman, is that
there has been no drop-off. U.S. immigration peaked in the early
1900s but it then declined in the 1920s and 1930s.
"American immigration patterns have been very cyclical.
There's time for a timeout. We need to assimilate people who are
here. It's harder to do when the numbers are so great of people
coming in," Tancredo said, pointing out that immigration
rates have only increased since President Bush took office in
Tancredo, who has represented Colorado's 6th District since 1998,
has spent considerable time campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire,
giving speeches at GOP events and courting activists at smaller
venues. His strategy this fall has centered largely on challenging
Republican frontrunners like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani
and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on immigration.
Part of the impetus behind Tancredo's calls for tougher enforcement
of illegal immigration and even a freeze on legal immigration
reflects his concern that immigrants are not assimilating into
American culture as they have in past generations. Technology,
Tancredo argues, contributes to a lack of assimilation, allowing
new immigrants to keep in constant contact with people back home,
making it more difficult for newcomers to separate themselves
from their homelands.
B eyond technology, Tancredo says another major factor is that
immigrants do not learn English as quickly they once did. There
is a precedent in American history for immigrants to settle in
communities where they speak a common language, Tancredo acknowledges
, noting that his Italian ancestors did the same thing -- but
he contends the consequences today are different.
"That's all natural, normal, it's happened throughout our
country's history. But then there was a certain time -- there
was a breakout, if you will -- where people moved out into greater
American society and did so through language," Tancredo said.
In December, Tancredo sidelined himself by boycotting a Republican
debate sponsored by Univision, a Spanish-language channel, because
the debate was translated into Spanish.
"It is the law that to become a naturalized citizen of this
country you must have knowledge and understanding of English,
including a basic ability to read, write and speak the language,"
Tancredo said in a Dec. 7 news release. "So what may I ask
are our presidential candidates doing participating in a Spanish-speaking
debate? Pandering comes to mind."
A s the GOP's lead pack bypassed second-tier candidates in the
polls, Tancredo ha s tried to keep the front-runners on their
toes on immigration issues and he has carved out his place in
the field for his tough immigration stance. In a November debate,
after listening to Romney and Giuliani argue about their immigration
policies, Tancredo said it was wonderful to hear them trying to
Even though Tancredo has struggled to gain support since announcing
his candidacy in April, his goal of immigration reform has been
a hot-button topic on Capitol Hill and an issue of growing importance
among many voters. Congress tried to pass immigration legislation
earlier this year, but it stalled after support for a Senate bill
collapsed. Tancredo was a vocal player in defeating the bill --
including his vow to ensure the defeat of any Republican senator
who voted for the measure.
And Tancredo's threat is not an idle one to politicians within
the GOP. Many Republican voters have identified immigration as
a crucial issue this election, especially in Iowa where the nomination
race kicks off with the state's Jan. 3 caucus. In a University
of Iowa Hawkeye poll released Oct. 29, 13.4 percent of Republican
caucus-goers named immigration as their most important issue,
52.5 percent said it was very important and 29.2 percent said
it was somewhat important. In contrast, just 2.4 percent of Democratic
caucus-goers said immigration was their most important issue.
Tancredo viewed the Senate immigration bill's death last June
as a legislative victory. The bill would have paired tougher border-enforcement
measures with more controversial temporary-worker permits provisions
and ways for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the
United States to gain citizenship. But Tancredo wanted a bill
that focused strictly on border security, so he led a conservative
effort that kept the legislation from passing.
"The greatest thing about the whole deal was that the American
people were able to see their interest, their voice, was actually
heard," Tancredo said.
After the collapse of the immigration bill, Tancredo wasted little
time in pushing for new enforcement measures. At a July news conference,
he unveiled OVERDUE, which stands for the Optimizing Visa Entry
Rules and Demanding Uniformed Enforcement bill. Tenets of the
proposal include limiting birthright citizenship to children who
have at least one parent who is already a legal resident or citizen,
prohibiting states from granting in-state tuition status to illegal
immigrants, making voting in a foreign election a basis for losing
citizenship and tightening the employment-based green card system.
Tancredo remains one of the loudest voices in Congress against
recurring legislative efforts to expand benefits provided to illegal
immigrants such as the DREAM Act, which would have provided educational
benefits and legal status to the children of illegal immigrants
who want to attend college or join the military.
Despite his laser-like focus on immigration, he shrugs off critics
who call him a single-issue candidate. While immigration reform
resonates on the campaign trail, he says his campaign encompasses
how illegal immigration affects health care, the environment and
education. According to Tancredo, illegal immigration is "too
big" to simply peg as one issue.
But Tancredo's tactics and language have angered many immigration
advocates. Joe Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center
at the New Democratic Network, is a vocal critic of Tancredo's
platform. He describes the candidate's rhetoric as "toxic"
and designed to "diminish and degrade" a relatively
Garcia said that while he understands Americans are nervous about
immigration, allowing voices such as Tancredo's to lead the debate
won't generate productive solutions. He added, however, that the
lawmaker's impact on the presidential race is undeniable.
"Yes, he's been effective, in the same way Joe Lieberman
in 2004 pulled the Democrats towards the war. Tom Tancredo has,
in effect, pulled people towards his fringe position on immigration,"
Tancredo says his detractors turn to accusations of racism "when
they have run out of any intellectual argument on the issue."
He said his goal is to reduce differences between groups of Americans.
"What I'd like to see is a country of black and brown and
white and every hue in between who are connected simply by an
idea, maybe, and a language, as I say. It's got nothing to do
with race, it's got nothing to do with ethnicity. It has got everything
to do with being an American and what that really, actually means