The mainstream Republican candidates are all on record as supporting fair-minded “comprehensive” immigration reform. John McCain sponsored a reform bill together with his Democratic colleague, Ted Kennedy. Mr Romney mocked the idea that you could deport 12m people. As mayor of New York, Mr Giuliani denounced federal immigration laws as harsh and unfair. As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee supported allowing the children of illegal immigrants to claim cheap in-state tuition. As a senator for Tennessee, Fred Thompson supported an increase in the number of visas available for agricultural workers.
The most outspoken “restrictionist” on the platform is Tom Tancredo, an obscure Republican congressman from Colorado. Mr Tancredo has made immigration reform—which to him means sending the 12m back home—the centrepiece of his campaign. He has produced advertisements linking illegal immigrants to terrorism and gang violence.
Flaky stuff. But Mr Tancredo speaks for a sizeable portion of the Republican base. He helped to replace Mr McCain's immigration-reform bill with a harsher measure that authorised the building of a 700-mile (1,100km) fence along the Mexican border. And he—or at least Tancredoism—is having a remarkable influence on the Republican debate.
The most shameless flip-flopper on immigration is Mr Romney. He now echoes Mr Tancredo's talk of “amnesty” and criticises his rivals—particularly Messrs Giuliani and Huckabee—for being soft on immigration. But others have followed in his direction. Mr Giuliani emphasises border security. Mr Huckabee has produced a “secure America plan”. Mr Thompson threatens to “punish employers” who hire illegals. Even Mr McCain has hardened his line on immigration, though he continues to warn his party against demonising immigrants. Mr Tancredo now accuses his rivals of trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo”.
This represents a repudiation of Mr Bush's strategy of welcoming Latinos into the Republican tent by supporting immigration reform. It also carries risks for the Republicans in the 2008 election—and indeed in future elections. Latinos are the fastest growing electoral block in the country. The Republicans could end up losing five Latino-rich states that Mr Bush won in 2004: Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.
The Democratic candidates have been much more consistent in their support for comprehensive immigration reform. Every senator on the platform supported Mr McCain's legislation, for example. But they are also aware that the subject is a bear trap. Only two mainstream candidates, Mr Obama and Bill Richardson, have come out in favour of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driving licences (Mrs Clinton resolved her internal debate by deciding against the idea). The mainstream candidates have been careful to avoid calling illegals “undocumented workers”, the formulation favoured by pro-immigrant pressure groups in their party.
They are right to be nervous. Most Americans are ambivalent about illegal immigration—proud of America's history as an immigrant-friendly country but hostile to anything that sanctions breaking the law and worried about the economic impact of immigration. The latest Economist/YouGov poll (see chart) reveals a striking degree of concern about the threat that immigration poses both to “traditional American values” and economic well-being. Illegal immigrants also place huge burdens on America's hospitals, schools and prisons (there are, for instance, around 20,000 of them in California's jails).
Worries about globalisation are strong among two of the Democratic Party's core constituencies—blue-collar workers and blacks. Some working-class Americans must compete for jobs with people who are in the country illegally. In California, English-speakers are fleeing urban schools where more than 70% of the children are Hispanics, forking out for private schools or homes in the suburbs.
The driving-licence question is particularly dangerous for Democrats. Only 22% of the voters in a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll supported allowing illegal immigrants to get licences. Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, saw his popularity collapse when he endorsed the idea. He has now retreated...
The problem of illegal immigration will continue to haunt the presidential race. Rightly so: no country should have 12m people living illegally within its borders. But awkwardly so from the perspective of the candidates: the issue pulls Americans in all sorts of contradictory directions. No wonder most politicians keep trying to duck the question—and no wonder the voters will not let them.
Tancredo was always a self-professed one-issue candidate. And far from being disappointed at his meager poll showings, Tancredo says he achieved more in this election cycle than he dreamt possible. In part due to his cage-rattling, immigration is one of the biggest issues in the race, on both sides of the aisle.
True to his single issue focus, Tancredo chose to throw his support behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney out of a mixture of agreement and spite. Romney, "has actually got a record," said Tancredo. "He was governor of a liberal state but opposed drivers licenses for illegal immigrants and instate tuition for illegal immigrants at a time when they weren't issues on the national scene." As for why the endorsement came now, Tancredo admitted he hoped to hurt the chances of rivals Mike Huckabee and John McCain — both of whom he views as weak on immigration. "It was the rise of Huckabee in Iowa, that's what really was disconcerting, and McCain in New Hampshire." (The McCain campaign declined comment, while Huckabee spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest replied: "The governor has a really strong and tough stand on immigration... and in the days ahead we're looking forward to talking with voters in Iowa about how he sees the need for change.")
Immigration was thrown into the spotlight last year when President George W. Bush moved to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal aliens living in the U.S. while shoring up border security and overhauling the naturalization and visa processes. House Republicans, with Tancredo leading the charge, blocked the plan. They accused Bush of seeking to grant sweeping amnesty. McCain, with a handful of Senate Republicans, backed the president's plan.
In debates, forums and in his own campaigning, Tancredo kept pressure on the issue, railing against Republicans and Democrats alike for not doing enough to secure U.S. borders, even after Congress passed legislation to build a 700-mile border fence that some experts say could cost as much as $50 billion. (So far, less than $5 billion has actually been appropriated for the project).
Tancredo said he surpassed his own goals of raising awareness on the issue, "frankly to an extent that was beyond my greatest expectations." Every Republican candidate — even John McCain is now saying he was on the wrong side issue — has got the basics. You've got Rudy Giuliani running ads talking about securing the border. On the basics we've got 'em."
By basics Tancredo means forcing all illegal immigrants to go home and reapply to enter the country legally if they want to return, making English the national language and denying municipal services for illegal aliens such as driver's licenses, Social Security benefits and state-subsidized education. Huckabee has come under particular fire for backing college-level grants for the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas. "We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," said Huckabee, defending his stance, in a Florida debate last month.