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When Republican Representative Tom Tancredo isn’t railing against the “scourge” of illegal immigration on the presidential campaign trail, he relaxes in the 1053 square foot basement recreation room of his Littleton, Colorado McMansion. There, he and his family can rack up a game of billiards on their tournament size pool table, play pinball, or enjoy their favorite movies in the terraced seating area of a home theater system. Tancredo, who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War by producing evidence that he suffered from mentally illnesses, especially likes entertaining his buddies with classic war movies.
“We have friends over and I have now shown Pearl Harbor about six times,” Tancredo boasted to the Rocky Mountain News about his 102-inch television. “But I mainly just show the attack scene because the sound is so good.”
When Tancredo hired a construction crew to transform his drab basement into a high-tech pleasure den in October 2001, however, he did not express concern that only two of its members spoke English. Nor did he bother to check the workers’ documentation to see if they were legal residents of the United States. Had Tancredo done so, he would have learned that most of the crew consisted of undocumented immigrants, or “criminal aliens” as he likes to call them. Instead, Tancredo paid the crew $60,000 for its labor and waited innocently for the completion of his elaborate entertainment complex.
During the renovation process, two illegal workers hired by Tancredo were alerted to his reputation for immigrant bashing. They went straight to the Denver Post to complain. Tancredo “doesn't want us here, but he'll take advantage of our sweat and our labor,” one of the workers complained to the Post on September 19, 2002. “It's just not right.”
The Post report momentarily threw Tancredo on the defensive. In a fiery speech soon after the story’s publication, Tancredo blamed his foibles on the INS. “I haven't the foggiest idea how many people I may have hired in the past as taxi drivers, as waiters, waitresses, home improvement people,” he boomed from the House floor. “I haven't the foggiest idea how many of those people may have been here illegally, and it is not my job to ask them.” Then defiance gave way to vitriol as the congressman dubbed undocumented immigrants, “the face of murder.”
Only days before the Post’s story appeared, Tancredo had personally reported an honor student profiled in the Denver Post to the INS because the 14-year-old was not a legal resident of the United States. The stunt forced the boy’s family to go into hiding. Fortunately for Tancredo, the ensuing revelations of his hiring of illegal labor fell below the radar of the national media, allowing his anti-immigrant crusade to proceed unabated.
Tancredo proceeded to organize over 90 anti-immigration House members into an informal but powerful caucus that has effectively prevented any non-enforcement related immigration legislation from reaching the President’s desk. His Team America PAC, which is chaired by right-wing pundit Bay Buchanan, has donated tens of thousands of dollars this election cycle to nativist candidates who hope to fill Tancredo’s caucus with new blood when he retires next year. Down on the border, Tancredo announced his support for the Minutemen, providing the anti-immigrant militia with a veneer of respectability while its pistol-packing members hunt for brown-skinned evildoers.
Tancredo has also played an instrumental role in shaping the way immigration is discussed in the media. Despite his third tier status in the presidential campaign, as of November 19 the congressman has appeared on Fox News more times during 2007 than any other presidential candidate. A former Tancredo staffer speaking on condition of anonymity told me recently that the congressman spends extensive time on the phone with top-rated CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, offering him tips and ideas for his daily “Broken Borders” segments.
Dobbs, in turn, has produced an unending string of specious “reports” painting undocumented immigrants from Latin America as disease-ridden criminals. In May, for example, Dobbs falsely claimed that illegal migrants from Mexico were responsible for 7000 new cases of leprosy in the United States. A wave of negative publicity forced Dobbs to acknowledge his source for the bogus story as Madeleine Cosman, a deceased white supremacist activist who often appeared at anti-immigrant rallies beside her pal Tancredo.
The success of Tancredo’s efforts to project his nativist politics onto the national stage were apparent during CNN’s November 26 Republican Youtube debate. In a heated exchange that highlighted press coverage of the debate, presidential frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney competed with one another over who could appear the most draconian towards “illegals.” When Romney accused Giuliani of running a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants while serving as mayor of New York, Giuliani shot back that Romney had run a “sanctuary mansion” when he was governor of Massachusetts. Giuliani pointed to a lengthy Boston Globe report revealing that Romney paid a gardening service that employed illegal workers to tend the lawns of his mansion. Suddenly, the candidates with the most tolerant records on immigration issues sounded like Tancredo.
While the two rivals clashed, Tancredo stood at the far end of the stage smiling contentedly. The cause he championed for years with a band of ornery border vigilantes, white supremacists, and assorted dregs by his side had become a central theme in the race for the White House. Of all the major GOP candidates, only Sen. John McCain has countered Tancredo with big tent appeals to socially conservative Latinos. The other candidates have reliably parroted his talking points, parrying accusations of ideological impurity by accusing one another of being soft on illegal immigration. “All I've heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo,” Tancredo observed during the debate. “It is great.”
But there is one way the Republican candidates can never out-Tancredo Tancredo. The congressman lives in a “sanctuary mansion” built by the kind of people he has made a career out of demonizing. Tom Tancredo may have no hope of winning the Republican nomination, but in the cause of hypocrisy, he is the frontrunner.
Max Blumenthal is a fellow of the Nation Institute and a research fellow at Media Matters for America. The winner of the USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism Award, his work frequently appears in the Nation, the Huffington Post, Alternet, and the American Prospect. He is currently writing a book, Land of Sin, for Nation/Basic Books due out in July 2008.