‘Let the Prisoners Pick the Fruits’

AP, March 31, 2006

WASHINGTON—House conservatives criticized President Bush, accused the Senate of fouling the air, said prisoners rather than illegal farm workers should pick America’s crops and denounced the use of Mexican flags by protesters Thursday in a vehement attack on legislation to liberalize U.S. immigration laws.

“I say let the prisoners pick the fruits,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, one of more than a dozen Republicans who took turns condemning a Senate bill that offers an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants an opportunity for citizenship.

“Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter ‘A,’” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, referring to a guest worker provision in the Senate measure.

Their news conference took place across the Capitol from the Senate, where supporters and critics of the legislation seemed determined to heed admonitions from both Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to conduct a dignified, civilized debate.

The House has passed legislation to tighten border security, while the Senate approach also includes provisions to regulate the flow of temporary workers into the country and control the legal fate of millions of illegal immigrants already here. Bush has broadly endorsed the Senate approach, saying he wants a comprehensive bill.


On Wednesday, leading GOP senators disagreed whether the legislation amounted to amnesty.

There was no such debate at the news conference in the House, where not a word was spoken in defense of the Senate bill and even Bush was not spared criticism.

“I don’t think he’s concerned about alienating voters, he’s not running for re-election,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. He said Republicans could lose the House and Senate over the immigration issue, and he said of the president: “I wish he’d think about the party and of course I also wish he’d think about the country.”

Referring to a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks, Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia said, “I say if you are here illegally and want to fly the Mexican flag, go to Mexico and wave the American flag.”

King analyzed the issue in class terms.

“The elite class in America is becoming a ruling class and they’ve made enough money by hiring cheap illegal labor that they think they also have some kind of a right to cheap servants to manicure their nails and their lawn, for example.

“So this ruling class, this new ruling class of America, is expanding a servant class in America at the expense of the middle class of America, the blue collar of America that used to be able to punch a time clock, buy a modest house and raise their families. . . Those young people are cut out of this process.”


The first time Rep. Tom Tancredo got really angry about immigration, the year was 1975, and he was a junior high school social studies teacher in Denver. The state had recently passed the nation’s first bilingual education law, and Hispanic kids were taken from his class to study in Spanish.

That idea made zero sense to Tancredo, the grandson of Italian immigrants. He believed that newcomers should be assimilated into the country, as they had been for generations. The image of America as a beacon for people from all over the world uniting under one flag and one language was threatened, he contended, if the country started adapting to immigrants, instead of the other way around.

A year later, Tancredo launched a political career animated by his obsession to stem the tide of immigration from Mexico and Central America that he feared would change the character and security of the country. Today, the four-term Republican House member stands at the center of a national debate over how best to deal with the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Tancredo helped the House pass a bill in December that would impose criminal sanctions on illegal immigrants and those who employ them and that would erect a wall along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border to keep others out.

That legislation has triggered massive protests throughout the country and prompted a Senate committee this week to pass an alternative measure with a guest-worker program that would help many illegal immigrants eventually win permanent residency or even U.S. citizenship.

Tancredo, 60, has so effectively tapped into the anger of millions of Americans who favor a crackdown on illegal immigrants and tougher measures at the border that the back-bench Republican is considering making a bid for president in two years. But in Washington, he is viewed warily by Democrats, the White House and even some of his Republican colleagues as a loose cannon or even a zealot.

After Tancredo suggested in 2002 that President Bush’s views on immigration amounted to a national security threat, White House political adviser Karl Rove told him, “Don’t ever darken the door of the White House”—although Tancredo later was invited to the White House for a bill signing.


A ubiquitous presence on the airwaves, Tancredo has appeared more than 1,000 times on radio talk shows in recent years and has become a television news mainstay. He has traveled widely around the country, including the early presidential caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. His office averaged 4,566 pieces of mail per month during the first quarter of this year. When Tancredo was scheduled as a guest on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, he received 300 “good luck” e-mail messages before his appearance and 700 “good job” e-mails after the show.

The relentless media exposure, along with polls indicating that many Americans support a border crackdown and the deportation of illegal immigrants, has given Tancredo considerable influence over the immigration legislation now unfolding in Congress. “He’s a force because he represents what a lot of people think,” said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration. “He’s only a gadfly in Washington.”


Tancredo, a self-described religious right Republican, grew up on the north side of Denver, taught in junior high school, and was elected to the state House in 1976 at the age of 30. He was part of a group called “the crazies,” who advocated the elimination of the sales tax on food and utilities, and was a critic of public education.

But immigration has always been his chief preoccupation, and he made a name for himself after winning election to Congress. Tancredo strongly opposes any programs to accommodate illegal workers already living in the country and, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he supported the most stringent possible border enforcements.

Tancredo helped to shape a House bill, approved in December, that would impose stiff penalties on employers who hire illegal workers and would require businesses to eventually run the names of every employee through a national database to confirm their legality. The bill would end the “catch and release” policy for immigrants other than Mexicans who are caught sneaking into the country. Five double-layer border fences would be built in California and Arizona, stretching 698 miles at a total cost of more than $2.2 billion.


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