It’s April Fools’ Day and Congressman Tom Tancredo, dressed in jeans, an open-necked khaki shirt and a camouflage US Border Patrol cap, sparks a prolonged standing ovation from the hundred or so assembled volunteers of the Minuteman Project as they kick off their monthlong campaign to close down the Arizona-Mexico border. His presence here, at what is most definitely a fringe political event involving armed citizen patrols, is validation–at least in the minds of the project organizers–that their seal-the-borders message is finally resonating in Washington. The avenging angel of America’s anti-immigrant movement, Tancredo leads seventy mostly back-bench, restrictionist House members in the Immigration Reform Caucus.
The short, stocky Congressman grips the podium in this town’s high-ceilinged former courthouse and congratulates the Minutemen, saying, “You are not vigilantes; you are heroes, every single one of you.” He gets another thunderous ovation toward the end of his short speech when he asks the agitated audience, referring to upcoming immigration and border-reform legislation: “You know how I know we are winning? You know because I’m no longer the only one who stands up on this issue…. In Congress, I can’t promise you what’s going to happen. But I can promise you this much: There’s gonna be one hell of a fight.” And in case anyone’s wondering who it is that Tancredo and his supporters plan on fighting, fellow speaker Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister, spells it out: “Our message to Mr. Bush is that you have failed us! You have failed our children, Mr. Bush, because you allow drugs and criminals across the border. Mr. President, you have failed America.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that George W. Bush, rather than liberal Democrats, should be the target of so much cranked-up ire from the nativist right. For the first time since 9/11, comprehensive immigration reform is back at the top of the national political agenda. It was put there last year largely by the President, wittingly or otherwise, when he publicly called for a large-scale guest-worker program. That call came at a point when both political parties were eyeing the burgeoning Latino population, especially in the Southwestern swing states, and had been for some time. In 2001 Bush, who had already made significant inroads with Latinos and was trying to stretch that advantage, proposed a vast immigration deal with Mexico. And just three months before September 11, Mexico’s foreign minister at the time, Jorge Castañeda, told US reporters he was confident that the “whole enchilada” was about to be agreed upon–i.e., a sweeping reform that would legalize millions of undocumented workers already in America as well as those coming in the future.