DENVER—The armed volunteers patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border may be the starkest sign of frustration with the nation’s immigration laws, but across the country there is a growing populist movement also taking matters into its own hands.
In Washington, Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere, grass-roots organizations are forming to pass initiatives and pressure politicians into enacting laws denying benefits to illegal immigrants. There are already groups in seven states and more are expected by the end of summer. One congressman may even run for president on a platform of securing the border.
The issue, experts say, is affecting more people than ever before and the gap between the public and policymakers is widening.
“Immigration is now a national phenomenon in a way that was less true a decade ago,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “In places like Georgia and Alabama, which had little experience with immigration before, people are experiencing it firsthand. Immigrants are working in chicken plants, carpet mills and construction. It’s right in front of people’s faces now, which is why it’s become a political issue where it wasn’t relevant before.”
Supporters of tougher enforcement say the rise of citizen groups is a natural response to the federal government’s reluctance to repair a situation nearly everyone admits is broken.
“The issue is about elites, major financial interests and global economic forces arrayed against the average American voter,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration policies. “The depth of anger should not be underestimated.”
Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the gulf between the “elite” and the average American was bigger on illegal immigration than nearly any other issue.
“Elites are less likely to be inconvenienced by immigration,” he said. “They are hiring illegals, not competing against them for work.”
President Bush told newspaper editors recently that anger over immigration could lead to nativism, which was not how Americans should view the world.
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who for years has supported a clampdown on illegal immigration, said the passage of Proposition 200 was behind the newfound political interest in reform.
Tancredo has been speaking in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first presidential contests are held.
“I am on this little crusade where my purpose is to build a fire around this issue so that any presidential candidate will have to deal with it,” he said. “I wish you could have been there in New Hampshire to see the passion around this—in New Hampshire!”
If there is no serious reform soon, Tancredo may do more than just talk.
“I will think of what option I have to make this part of the national debate, and if it means running for president then I will do it,” he said.