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Tancredo in Maelstrom of Immigration Debate

To advocates of enforcing immigration laws at the country's borders, he is a hero. To those seeking to protect illegal aliens once they get here, he is a racist.

One thing is for sure, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has a knack for generating headlines as he advocates immigration reform in a security-rich political environment.

"He is a very courageous individual," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a member of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, of which Tancredo is the chairman. "There are few members of Congress who have the courage to be as candid as he is."

The two-term Tancredo has spent the last year fighting to beef up the U.S. Border Patrol and reform an Immigration and Naturalization Service that he says is inadequately equipped to stop the estimated 9 million illegal immigrants entering the country each year.

Since ineffective INS enforcement was blamed in part for the Sept. 11 attacks, Tancredo has held hearings and publicly challenged fellow lawmakers and the Bush administration to be more adamant about INS reforms.

Last spring, he launched an e-mail petition drive calling for the deployment of as many as 20,000 federal troops to the 6,000 miles of northern and southern U.S borders. His immigration caucus was also key in killing a bill that would have given amnesty to 3 million Mexican immigrants living here illegally.

"What we're talking about here is national security," Tancredo told Foxnews.com. "We're much more organized and there is much more feeling out there in the country for [immigration reform] than there was before."

This isn't the first time that Tancredo has taken a vociferous stand on a national issue when it hits close to home. In 1999, he fought against efforts to make the Columbine High School killings a war cry for new federal gun laws.

Tancredo, whose home was within six blocks of the high school, went on record repeatedly charging that stricter laws could not have saved the 12 students and one teacher shot to death by 12th-graders Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris on April 20, 1999. Klebold and Harris then shot themselves.

Recently, Tancredo has been the target of more virile criticism. In September, he called the INS about a Mexican family living in the United States illegally for the last six years after they had been featured in The Denver Post. College hopeful Jesus Apodaca, 18, who lives with his family in Colorado, was highlighted in a piece about the debate over higher-education tuition assistance for illegal immigrants.

The sympathetic piece was picked up not only by a reader who offered to be Apodaca's benefactor, but Tancredo, who said the feature story was an indication the INS had no enforcement mechanism. He called the INS to ask if they were going to look into the story.

While the move unleashed a debate that set up Tancredo for admonishment, even from Colorado Republicans, he said the news was wrong. He did not request the INS deport the family, as was reported in The Denver Post and elsewhere, including Foxnews.com. Instead, he waited a month and called to ask if they had planned to investigate. He was told the agency would write the family a letter, he said.

Nonethless, the story moved Republican Gov. Bill Owens to support publicly bills by U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and a House version by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that would keep the Apodacas in the United States. It also created friction within the Colorado Republican Party.

"They agree that they just disagree on this issue," said Camden Hubbard, spokeswoman for Campbell. "This is not the kind of immigrant that we would want to attack, we would rather welcome them into this country."

Nonetheless, Tancredo does not regret his actions. Rather, he felt the INS should address the situation, since the paper decided so blatantly to publicize their illegal status. He said that the message its sends to Mexicans who come to the country legally is that they shouldn't have worked so hard to get here, and tells Americans that the current law is a sham.

"That's the worst thing about the Apodaca case," said Tancredo. "That's why I felt I had to do something about it." 

He does have some supporters, however.

"The reason why Tom ends up on the cover of The Denver Post is because they want him to be responsible for the mistake it made," said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., who said the paper is to blame for the family going into hiding following the Tancredo/INS reports.

Nevertheless, the League of United Latin American Citizens, in a recent statement, called Tancredo a "prototypical anti-immigrant hypocrite," and said his behavior in the Apodaca case was indicative of the "extremist anti-immigrant racism" espoused by some members of Congress.

Trancredo's supporters dismiss this as political manipulation by LULAC to shift the argument away from the real isues. In fact, these are the people who wish the law never existed, said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"If they want to abolish immigration laws they should have the courage to stand up and say it," said Stein.

Despite the maelstrom around him, Tancredo appears to be safe for re-election. Campaigns & Elections Oddsmaker gives the former junior high school teacher and state House representative a 70-percent chance of winning over Democrat Lance Wright and Libertarian Adam Katz next month. His suburban Denver district is distinctly Republican.

"We're just getting started," Tancredo said.