Colorado Congressman Fights Illegal Immigration

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The House of Representatives passed legislation late last year that included strict provisions for immigration control and border enforcement. Renee Montagne talks to Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, a leading critic of illegal immigration.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now any bill that passes the Senate will have to be matched up with legislation already approved by the House. As David reported, some House Republicans are urging a much tougher approach to illegal immigrants. One House member, California's Dana Rohrabacher said yesterday: let prisoners pick the fruit in place of undocumented farm workers.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've heard a number of voices this week on this issue, and today we turn to Representative Tom Tancredo. He's a Colorado Republican who has emerged as a leader of efforts to beef up border security and criminalize illegal immigrants. Earlier this week he spoke to us from his office on Capitol Hill. I asked him first to outline the key provisions of the House bill.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; Chairman, House Immigration Reform Caucus): The three that everybody always refers to as being the most significant are first, a border fence of about 700 miles in length; a provision that allows local law enforcement agents to become involved with the effort of enforcing our immigration laws; and third, something called the social security check system. It would require employers to use that system, which is now voluntary, to determine whether or not any employee he or she presently has on the books is using a social security number that is valid.

MONTAGNE: This House bill actually makes it--and this is one of the controversial aspects of it--makes it a felony to be an undocumented worker.

Representative TANCREDO: It does but it certainly also is hoping to get to the real root of the problem and the root of the problem is, of course, the magnet that is created by the employers who are, who are offering the jobs that people are taking and people who are here illegally are taking.

If we could actually do something about that, we would solve about 75 percent of this problem. If you could stop people from being hired who are presently here illegally, then of course, their options are reduced dramatically. Most of them are reduced to only one option and that is to go home.

MONTAGNE: The Senate rejected the idea of making it a felony to be an undocumented worker in this country. It creates a guest worker program which would cover, in theory, millions of workers. Do you think the Senate could produce any immigration legislation that you would support at this point?

Representative TANCREDO: No. I mean, not if, not if it included what you just said, no of course not, because it's antithetical to everything we're trying to do in the House. Either you have enforcement or you have a, some sort of guest worker plan. They really don't go together. The other thing is this: the minute you reward illegal behavior by amnesty, you get millions and millions of people who are, of course, trying to come across the line and obtain that amnesty...

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the president insists, as do backers of the bill, that this is not amnesty.

Representative TANCREDO: It's, it's like, do you know, do you remember when President Clinton used to say all the time: it all depends on how you define the word is.

MONTAGNE: So you're saying now, President Bush is doing that very thing.

Representative TANCREDO: Sure. If you tell people who have broken the law that they can stay here, that's amnesty.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you, though, a political question. Why force a divide among Republicans on this issue right at this point in time during mid-term elections?

Representative TANCREDO: Because if we do not put the Republican Party on the pathway to an enforcement-only position, we will pay a heavy penalty in November. Poll after poll tells us that 70 percent or more want an end to illegal immigration. From my point of view, the best thing that has happened in a long time has been the demonstrations over the last several days.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets waving Mexican flags, demanding to be allowed to break the law. This does not play well in Peoria.

MONTAGNE: Congressman, thank you.

Representative TANCREDO: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Tom Tancredo is a Republican congressman from Colorado. Americans are divided on the issue of illegal immigration. You can read the results of a new poll at NPR.org.

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