- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The U.S. Congress remains sharply divided over immigration reform. The House of Representatives has passed a bill emphasizing tougher enforcement measures, including a stronger border security presence and penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants. The Senate has passed a bill, favored by President Bush, that also seeks to tighten security on the U.S.-Mexican border but includes provisions that would lead to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
One of the strongest voices in Congress for an enforcement-only approach is Congressman Thomas Tancredo, a four-term Colorado Republican who chairs the 104-member House Immigration Reform Caucus. He frames the issue both in terms of the letter of the law and as an imperative to preserve the country’s identity. He believes there is momentum for the House bill, as evidenced by increasing measures by states to crack down on illegal immigration. And he regards the latest changes to the country’s changing ethnic composition as a threat to national unity while the country seeks to wage a war on what he calls “Islamo-fascism.”
The immigration issue is now out in the hustings with these field hearings. Have you seen any move toward compromise or is this something that will continue to be kicked on down the road past the elections?
The chances of [a compromise] happening are slim to none because of the schedule. When you look at us out there on the hustings holding hearings—here’s the House holding hearings on how bad the Senate bill is, that’s essentially exactly what they are. The hearing is to show you “Here’s the good bill that the House passed and here’s a lousy piece of legislation that the Senate passed.” It would be hard then to come back and have the House adopt some part of that legislation after we just spent months out in the country telling everybody how terrible it is. So the question is whether or not they—the president, the members of the Senate who want this, and some in the House, too—will be able to craft something that takes on the appearance of an enforcement-first bill but has some mechanism inside of it that will be “triggered”—I think that’s the word the president keeps using and Senator [Arlen] Spector—“triggered” to then bring into existence a guest worker plan.
There are a lot of questions: Who pulls the trigger, and what is the mechanism that is designed to make that happen, and what are the specifics? The bill that would address this would have to be so complex that it would require, again, another set of hearings. It just does not seem that there could possibly be time.
Looking at the House bill, why is it so important that the bill be enforcement only, or enforcement first, ahead of any sort of trigger?
We now have something to look at, historically speaking. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986 was almost exactly the same sort of situation, where we had massive illegal immigration—not quite as massive as what we’ve got [now], but relatively speaking as massive—we had the calls for amnesty, with the promise that if we provided that amnesty—essentially guest workers, creating a huge legalized work force, a cheap labor work force—if we were to do that, we were promised that there would be worksite enforcement, that Mexico would work with us to try to stem the flow of illegal aliens, and our problems would be solved.
That was twenty years ago. Of course we know that we did not just give amnesty to one million people—at the time that was the number given—we gave it to three million and we ended up with between fifteen and twenty million illegal aliens twenty years later. The reason you have to have the enforcement part first is because I don’t trust the administration to ever do the enforcement part if you give them any sort of guest worker opportunity.
What do you see as the most effective enforcement type tools that can stem this surge?
Employer sanctions, undeniably. Employers today create the magnet that draws millions of people into the country illegally. The fact that we do nothing about it encourages, of course, more people to do it, which continues the circle.
So going after the employers, then, leaves this pool of illegal immigrants facing a decision of work or go home?
Correct. That’s it, if they can’t get a job, they really don’t have many other options. If you came here for a job, then the thing for which you came is not available, large numbers will go home. I don’t know how many. Then, those who don’t go home you have to deport because that’s the law.
Some have raised the issue of crime. You are leaving them with fewer options so crime becomes a greater option.
I’ve heard that before. You know, really, if that’s the case and if the alternative to employment of people who are here illegally is a higher crime rate, I would say that the intervening measure to take is a much more aggressive deportation process.
What about the issue of the economics of it? To take one example: agriculture. Are you really going to get Americans to step in and work these fields at anywhere near the rates that would make it viable for the growers?
In the 60s, we had a thing called the Bracero program. It actually worked fairly well. A lot of different circumstances allowed for Mexican workers coming into the United States to work in the agricultural arena and go home afterwards when the season was done. It did work pretty much that way because they couldn’t bring family.
The liberals in Congress at the time determined that because people couldn’t bring family and because they considered it to be quite demeaning because farmers weren’t providing housing to the extent that people thought they should, they abolished the program, and when they did, the tomato growers said “This is the end of our business. Forget about it. We’re bankrupt because we cannot possibly exist without that kind of labor.” Well, of course, they not only continued to exist but they now produce 30 percent more than they did at the time and what they did was mechanize.
It’s an interesting and amazing thing that happens in a dynamic economy. Especially when the supply of cheap labor is cut off, your options are investing in technology or paying more. And sometimes it’s better to invest in technology and it pays off for the economy too.
What is your greatest concern as to the impact of illegal immigration?
We are in a clash of civilizations. I believe that is true. In order for us to be successful in this clash of civilizations, we need to know first of all who it is exactly that we are at war with. I believe we are fighting Islamo-fascism and it’s good to know who you are fighting, what motivates them.
I think the other thing you need to do in order to be successful in it is to know who you are and what are the aspects of Western civilization that we find appealing enough to hold us all together. I believe we are becoming balkanized. I believe this is not a fault of immigration, it is exacerbated by it. The radical multiculturalism we have witnessed over the past forty years in America, I call it a cult of multiculturalism. It has, I think, been successful in destroying the ties that hold us together as Americans. There are certain ideas and ideals that should hold us together and a common language we should use in order to communicate those ideas and ideals. We are becoming a bilingual nation, which is not good from my standpoint. Individuals who are bilingual are lucky and it is a good thing to be an individual who is bilingual or multilingual. It is not good for a country and we are, as I say, becoming balkanized, we concentrate on all the things that pull us apart as Americans instead of [what] holds us together and this does not help us in this greater issue of clash of civilizations. We’re losing sight of who we are.
Do you think the United States is no longer the melting pot it was?
That is true because we, on the one side, encourage assimilation as we used to and on the other side fewer people are coming into the country with the desire to assimilate, to separate themselves from the culture, the language, the political affiliations they have and reconnect to something new. That’s missing. Not with everybody, of course, there are still a lot of people coming to this country with that purpose. But when you look at the massive numbers of illegal immigrants, there is a singular purpose, which is for economic opportunity, which is certainly a common element for people in the past but there was an additional aspect of the earlier immigration movement. Most people or many came with the desire to actually assimilate, to leave the past behind. My grandparents would talk about that all the time.
The immigration reform issue is one that has really torn the Republican Party. Are you concerned that you might be seen as having something to do with antagonizing Latino voters that doom the GOP in national elections?
When I look around what I see is a different political landscape than that which is seen by the people who [believe tougher measures will harm Republicans]. I see a political landscape where Prop[osition] 200 (PDF) two years ago passes in Arizona after every single member of the congressional delegation came out in opposition. It’s a measure put on the ballot where it did two things—it restricted social service benefits [to apply only] to people who were legal residents, and had to show they were citizens in order to vote. Two radical things.
In other words, you’re seeing states take over where the federal government hasn’t acted.
Yes, but specific to your question, here was this radical proposal: The president actually called members of the delegation and said “Don’t get involved with this. Republicans will be accused of being anti-Hispanic.” The measure passes. It passes with 56 percent of the vote, 47 percent of the Hispanic vote. Shortly thereafter two Democratic governors in two heavily Hispanic states, Arizona and New Mexico—who by the way had spent most of their careers encouraging illegal immigrants by wanting to provide benefits and social services and everything—all of the sudden, they declare states of emergency. One of them, the governor of New Mexico, calls for the National Guard to be sent to the border. Hispanic state and a huge Hispanic population, and a Democrat. What does that tell us? Again, looking at the political landscape, does that say that if you actually do something about illegal immigration you’re going to lose Hispanic votes?
From your experience on this issue, are you thinking about a presidential run in 2008?
It’s the issue that propels this candidacy to the extent that should I need to actually get into a race formally in order to continue the momentum I would do it. On the other hand, maybe it will be resolved or maybe people who are more “serious” candidates would take it on. There is the distinct possibility that people running for nomination will try to out-Tancredo Tancredo and I won’t have to do anything.