The Horseshoe Cafe in Benson, a dusty town 90 minutes’ drive from Arizona’s border with Mexico, is almost full. The crowd – all white, mostly old, some wearing “Secure America Now” badges – have come to meet their “hero”, Tom Tancredo. The Colorado congressman, on a whistlestop tour to campaign against illegal immigration, does not disappoint.
“The United States is hooked on cheap labour as much as Mexico is hooked on the $20bn [£11.5bn, €16.7bn] of remittances that Mexicans send home,” he says, to cheers and applause. “We must hold the Republican party responsible. The American people need to have a voice so strong that it would drown out that of corporate America.”
While President George W. Bush champions a guest- worker programme as a solution to the immigration issue and US companies argue for open borders, Mr Tancredo has taken up the cause of conservative Republicans uneasy at what they see as an invasion by 11m “illegals”.
His grassroots tour entails long drives in a giant recreational vehicle to small gatherings at clubs and civic centres across the south-west. At each stop, the message is the same: immigrants are stealing jobs, driving down living standards for blue-collar Americans and destroying “western values”. At one rally, he talks about drugs and terrorists crossing the border. At another, the complaint is of overcrowded classrooms and emergency rooms.
Mr Tancredo can be seen as political heir to the isolationist and protectionist Pat Buchanan, who ran for president on the Reform party ticket in 2000, winning 0.4 per cent of the national vote; as if to demonstrate the lineage, Angela “Bay” Buchanan, a sister of Pat, is part of his entourage. But, in post-September 11 America, where illegal immigration is part of the debate on security, Mr Tancredo is harder to dismiss as a voice on the fringe.
“He is the only one willing to stick up for the American people against the problem of illegal immigrants,” says Connie Foust, a 59-year-old grandmother and ardent supporter, in Benson. “He’s a hero.”
Later, Al Garza, one of the leaders of the Minuteman Project, the controversial volunteer group that patrols the border, presents Mr Tancredo with his own Minuteman identification card.
The congressman gained national attention four years ago when he tried to get a family of illegal immigrants deported after reading in the Denver Post about their struggle to pay their son’s college tuition fees. More recently, he suggested the US should respond to Islamist terrorist attacks on the US by bombing Mecca and tried to make the government change the design of a Pennsylvania memorial to September 11 victims because its crescent shape was a symbol of Islam.
Such interventions – and his willingness to oppose the Bush administration’s proposals for border security – have hardly made him popular with some in the Republican party. Mr Tancredo likes to tell supporters about the time Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, told him “never to darken the White House door again”.
But in the House of Representatives, where he has served for eight years, he is making headway. In December the House passed an immigration bill that, among other measures, would build a fence along stretches of the 700-mile Mexican border. The Senate is due to debate a separate immigration bill this month.
As he criss-crosses the region, Mr Tancredo is unapologetic. He sees himself not as a populist xenophobe but as the voice of working-class America. He is, he tells the FT, troubled by “the cult of multiculturalism”; Hispanic immigration threatens to create a “Tower of Babel” that undermines America’s national identity. He wants heavier penalties for companies that hire illegal workers; subverting Mr Bush’s talk of “compassionate conservatism”, he asks: “How about some compassion for Americans, for those who are trying to work their way out of poverty?”
“To want less immigration is not anti-immigrant. We need a slowdown in the number of people we take in so that we can assimilate those who are already in this country. I don’t care where you come from; all I am asking is that when you come here you should disconnect with your past culture and allegiance and assimilate into America.”
To those who suggest that similar arguments have always been used against immigrants, Mr Tancredo, whose grandparents came from Italy, says that the difference now is one of scale. Hispanics, he says, have reached a critical mass.
That Mr Tancredo speaks for an anxious constituency is hard to dispute. The Minuteman Project is due to stage a rally on Wednesday outside the Capitol building in Washington to protest against the idea of guest worker amnesties.
But stoking controversy seems also to be part of Mr Tancredo’s game. At a rally in the car park of the Food Basket supermarket in Deming, New Mexico, one of his assistants appears genuinely dismayed by the absence of hecklers.