Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Border lines: Tom Tancredo and Gustavo Arellano, opponents on immigration and allies on legalization

Tom Tancredo suddenly found himself with a lot of free time earlier this month. When the five-term Colorado congressman ran for president of the United States on a single platform — illegal immigration — he'd called it his last political act. But then on August 1, 2010, Tancredo became a surprise, last-second American Constitution Party candidate for governor of Colorado, an office that some national pundits had him winning as late as 6 p.m. on November 2.

Tancredo didn't, of course. After a wild three months of campaigning and criss-crossing the state, he conceded to Democrat John Hickenlooper shortly after 8 p.m. that night. Hickenlooper wound up with a clear majority of the vote, with Dan Maes, the official Republican candidate, taking just 11 percent. And Tancredo? He pulled in more than 36 percent, over 600,000 votes, even though the ACP has fewer than 2,000 members.

Still, Tancredo suddenly had a lot of time on his hands — hands that picked up the phone when I called to ask if he'd be interested in debating immigration with Gustavo Arellano, the Orange County-based author of ¡Ask a Mexican!, who was going to be in Denver for a guest professorship at Metropolitan State College the next week. Ever since Westword had first started publishing Arellano's column, I'd wanted to host a debate between the two. And now, finally, the time was right.

Tancredo and Arellano met on the stage of the former Denver Civic Center, now Su Teatro (Tancredo is nothing if not game), in front of a packed house on Tuesday, November 16. I was the moderator for a discussion that needed no moderating; these two could have gone on for days about everything from Chuck Taylors to whether Saint Rocco was an enforcer for the mob to how to say "shithead" in Spanish. Read the full transcript and watch the unedited video. Here are some of the highlights from that meeting of the minds.

Gustavo Arellano: Tom is somebody I have slammed, repeatedly, in my column. Tom is somebody, who, well, Tom has never read my column. Which is okay, it is okay. So Tom, I continue to call you, always, a Know Nothing.

Tom Tancredo: Yeah, I've been called worse.

GA: You've been called worse, I'm sure. I do believe you can have rational discussions about the economic impacts of illegal immigration...but you've said that unlimited migration to this country is causing people to not assimilate, is causing people to not become Americans — and is different from the immigration from your grandparents' generation of two generations ago. So let me ask you this: My dad came to this country illegally, in the trunk of a Chevy. My mom dropped out of school in ninth grade. They've lived their lives in the United States for forty-some years, and 95 percent of their lives, they speak in Spanish. My first language was Spanish. I grew up in an all-Mexican neighborhood; I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone from our region of Mexico migrated. I basically grew up in Mexico — so how is it I'm talking to you in English if we can't assimilate, if the children of illegal immigrants can't assimilate, or if this current generation of immigrants, as you say, does not assimilate as quickly as others?

TT: The fact that you do what you do, the fact that you write the column that you write, the fact that you are so defensive about this issue is an indication that acculturation and assimilation has not occurred.... I think it's excellent that we started off with that, Gustavo, because we can, and do, argue all the time about the economic implications of massive immigration — both legal and illegal. Especially at times of 10 percent unemployment. But beyond that, even if we had 4 percent unemployment, massive immigration that does not come along with massive assimilation is problematic. And just learning English is not the only way to determine whether assimilation has gone on.

Juan Hernandez was in charge of a newly created ministry in Mexico called, at the time, "The Ministry for Mexicans Living in the United States." It was later changed to be a little more all-inclusive, I suppose. But he was a fascinating fellow with whom I had a number of debates...and he talked about what his purpose, his role was as the head of that ministry. He said it was to first encourage immigration into the United States from Mexico. And it didn't matter if it was legal or illegal. The government would help provide the transportation, do whatever they could to move as many Mexican citizens into the United States as possible. When I asked why, he would say, well, it's a win-win situation. We have a huge unemployment problem for people between the ages of 18 and 25, we can essentially ship them to the United States, you get cheap labor, they send back money. He said half of his time was spent in the United States, in order to assure that the population, the Mexican citizens that were coming, did not "go native" on him....

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun