Rep. Tom Tancredo

WASHINGTON – It was a victory the once-obscure Colorado congressman savored yesterday.

When the House of Representatives passed a tough new border control bill last night, Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo was all smiles.

He led an often-lonely and sometimes seemingly hopeless fight not only against Democratic opponents but against his own party and his own president.

“Today, the House of Representatives passed a bill which strengthens our border security and begins to enforce immigration laws throughout the country,” he said. “Over the last two days, reformers in the House have accomplished much: we have approved a security fence along our southern border, we have taken steps to end ‘catch and release’ nationwide, we have slashed funds to localities that shield illegal aliens, and we have gone after employers who attract illegal aliens to the U.S.”

The House voted 239-182 to stem the tide of illegal immigration by taking steps to tighten border controls and stop unlawful immigrants from getting jobs. But lawmakers left for next year the tougher issue of what to do with between 11 million and 20 million illegal aliens already in the country.

The House legislation, billed as a border protection, anti-terrorism and illegal immigration control act, includes enlisting military and local law enforcement help in stopping illegal entrants and requiring employers to verify the legal status of their workers. It authorizes the building of a fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

One measure that Republican leaders wouldn’t allow a vote on was a volatile proposal to deny citizenship to babies born in this country to illegal immigrants.

The issue next moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says he will bring up immigration legislation in February that will provide a framework for guest worker ideas that some see as amnesty for lawbreakers.

President Bush has proposed that illegal aliens be allowed to get three-year work visas. They could extend those for an additional three years, but would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit.

The House bill would beef up border security with the help of local law enforcement and military technology, impose tougher penalties for smuggling and re-entry, and end the “catch and release” policy for illegal non-Mexicans. It makes drunken driving convictions a deportable offense.

The bill makes unlawful presence in the United States, currently a civil offense, a felony. An amendment to reduce the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor was defeated, with many Democrats voting against the proposal because they did not want to make it a criminal offense at all.

The House bill would also require all employers in the country to submit Social Security numbers and other information to a national database to verify the legal status of workers.

“Some said that we couldn’t do it, that businesses are too addicted to illegal labor, that the problem is too complex for Congress to tackle,” said Tancredo, the chairman of the 92-member House Immigration Reform Caucus. “When it became clear that the American people’s demand for reform was too loud to ignore, our political foes changed their arguments and hid their intentions behind new language. Suddenly, amnesty was a ‘path to citizenship,’ an ‘earned legalization,’ or ‘comprehensive reform.’ We passed comprehensive reform today: we penalized illegal alien employers and secured our borders.”

Tancredo added: “The fact that Congress was forced to discuss immigration reform in itself is a victory for my allies. Such a victory has been years in the making, and credit is due to the millions of Americans who attended town halls, wrote letters to the editor, called talk radio shows, and even defended the border on their own. I thank them whole-heartedly for their efforts, and I am deeply honored by the support they have shown me and my congressional allies.”

Just a year ago, Tancredo said he could count his allies in the House on two hands. But Republican lawmakers began to see just how critical the issue was to voters in their districts. A recent poll showed border security second only to the war in Iraq as a motivating issue for voters.

“Today we savor our victory, but tomorrow we must begin the fight to ensure our victory becomes reality,” he said. “I am well aware that this is a three-round fight, and while this has been a good round, we haven’t delivered the knockout punch. The open borders lobby and its cronies in the Senate will undoubtedly attempt to attach an amnesty to our reform bill. The American people know what the Senate’s plan is, and they will bring political punishment to any official that favors it. No backdoor amnesty — no matter what you call it — will become law. Americans demand real reform now and, thankfully, they may get it.”

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