Tancredo Pushes Immigration as Top 2008 Issue

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Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), a leading conservative voice for a crackdown on illegal immigration, has been taking his message on the road — first to Iowa, and soon to New Hampshire. He's hoping to make the issue a prominent one for the 2008 presidential campaign. Tancredo says he's not planning on running himself, but might if the other Republican candidates ignore the issue.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Republican Party is split over the issue of immigration. Some think it's a good thing that brings more opportunity and jobs and more people into the GOP, others disagree. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo thinks that his message might resonate in the 2008 presidential race. NPR's Jeff Brady caught up with him in the early caucus state of Iowa.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Here's some advice: If you ever want to attract a crowd of 300 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on a weekday night, serve pork sandwiches and corn on the cob, start with the Pledge of Allegiance and invite Tom Tancredo to talk about how immigrants are changing the country.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): They're not coming here necessarily to be American. They're coming here for the economic advantage that they could have. Now that's OK. My grandparents came for the economic opportunity. But my grandparents came with a strong desire to cut from the old, to attach to the new and to become American. That was their idea.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRADY: Iowa may not be the first state to come to mind when you think about immigration. It certainly isn't a border state. But Latinos are the largest minority here and their numbers have grown in recent years. Iowa is known as a key state in the presidential nominating process. So is New Hampshire, and Tancredo will be there next month. Tancredo says he is just trying to get the immigration issue made a part of the 2008 campaign. And during his speech, he told Iowans to make sure they ask candidates about the issue when they come through the state.

Rep. TANCREDO: My dream is to have them, during the campaign, have all the people who are the really big A-team players arguing to see who's going to be tougher on immigration.

BRADY: If the congressman is to succeed in making this issue part of the campaign, he'll rely on the people standing in a long line behind the barbecued pork.

Mrs. JANE STEAMBACH(ph) (Iowa Resident): Well, we're Elvin and Jane Steambach of Persia, Iowa. And we're retired.

BRADY: The Steambachs say they're concerned about how immigrants are changing US culture.

Mr. ELVIN STEAMBACH(ph) (Iowa Resident): They don't speak the American language and they don't seem like they want to. They want us all to learn Spanish now and I think that's wrong.

MARCEDA(ph): Yeah, my first name is Marceda and I'm as German as can be and here I get a credit card, you know, through the mail that--it's all in Spanish. Now this is getting just too much. And my...

BRADY: As well-received as Tancredo was at the Iowa event, he was quite unpopular at a pro-immigration rally in his own backyard of Denver the next day.

(Soundbite of rally)

Demonstrators: (Chanting in unison in Spanish)

BRADY: Standing on the steps of the state Capitol, supporters of the newly formed Coalition For Human Dignity Beyond Borders chanted `Yes, we can' in Spanish. Organizer Manolo Gonzalez-Estay says Tancredo has made a sport of immigrant bashing. But he does see encouraging signs.

Mr. MANOLO GONZALEZ-ESTAY (Rally Organizer): I mean, one thing you realize if you look at any national polling, immigration is not the top issue. It's only the top issue in Tom Tancredo's mind, which is very small.

BRADY: Polls show Americans are more worried about the war, the economy and health care than immigration. Often the issue doesn't even make the top 10. Still, immigration is becoming a mainstay on conservative talk radio and Democratic governors in Arizona and New Mexico recently declared states of emergency because of crime and immigration on their borders. Tancredo says that's more evident the issue is catching fire. The congressman says his job now is to act as a bellows and fan the flames so that immigration will be one of the top issues in 2008.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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