As a bemused crowd of would-be illegal immigrants looked on from a makeshift refreshment stand, Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan on Tuesday stepped into a confrontational arena that sums up his often confrontational campaign: the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I am calling attention to a national disgrace,” Buchanan told reporters, his suit and shoes dusty from a Border Patrol tour of the rugged terrain. “The failure of the national government of the United States to protect the borders of the United States from an illegal invasion that involves at least a million aliens a year. As a consequence of that, we have social problems and economic problems. And drug problems.”
Saying that as many as 1,000 illegal immigrants were among those arrested during the Los Angeles riots, Buchanan repeated his previous calls to fortify key sections of the border with ditches and concrete-buttressed fences and to deploy U.S. military forces there if necessary.
Buchanan also advocated doubling the size of the Border Patrol to 6,600 agents, operating the immigration checkpoints 24 hours a day on Interstates 5 and 15, and charging a $2 toll on legal border crossings to pay for tougher enforcement.
“I don’t believe in being brutal on anyone,” he said. “But I do think that any country that wants to call itself a nation has got to defend its borders.”
Illegal immigration lies at the heart of Buchanan’s vision of what is wrong with America; the issue is perhaps the strongest attention-getter in Southern California for his fading GOP challenge.
“A lot of people listen to Pat Buchanan,” said Ben Seeley of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “At least 30% of the Republican Party, judging from the primaries.”
Although he said FAIR is non-political, Seeley welcomed Buchanan’s focus on immigration, saying, “Anybody of his prominence can’t do anything but help bring the subject to the attention of of the American public.”
Buchanan’s first visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border made for strange media theater.
The candidate arrived by four-wheel-drive vehicle at a hot, dusty ridge overlooking Smuggler’s Canyon, a prime crossing area where a new corrugated steel fence meets an old, battered chain-link fence. Buchanan supporters in suits and ties reached across the international line to buy soft drinks at a makeshift refreshment stand.
And about 25 Mexican migrants, most of whom had heard only vaguely of the candidate, chatted with security agents and tried to make sense of the pin-striped invasion.
“He’s a presidential candidate?” asked one man in sunglasses named Guillermo. “Does he speak Spanish? Ask him if he can pull the migra out of here for 24 hours, then he can do whatever he wants. Ask him if he can give me a ride to Los Angeles.”
Filoberto, a wiry 23-year-old from Mexicali wearing a black racing glove, scoffed when informed that Buchanan advocates sealing the border and giving the Border Patrol more agents and equipment.
“They have all kinds of technology,” said Filoberto, who was waiting to make his fourth attempt at crossing through the canyon in a week. “But we are smarter, people are smarter than machines. We are still going to cross. In fact, as soon as all of you people get out of here, we are going to go for it.”
To the discomfort of Buchanan aides, neo-Nazi Tom Metzger showed up with a handful of raucous supporters.
The group with Metzger hovered at the edges of the press conference yelling insulting comments about illegal immigrants, Republicans and Democrats. One man hawked hard hats that depict running illegal immigrants crossed out by the international “No” slash and a video tape that purportedly tells the “truth” about illegal immigrants: “They are coming by the millions, and they are all pregnant!”
Filoberto and his friends were not amused.
“I’m going to slash that guy’s tires,” Filoberto muttered.
Metzger, former head of the White Aryan Resistance who was recently convicted in a Los Angeles cross-burning, said he wanted to talk to Buchanan about getting “action” to control the border. He suggested that the National Guard be stationed at the border with orders to “shoot to kill.”
But Buchanan rejected Metzger, saying that, if Metzger contributed money to his campaign, it would be returned.
“I don’t have anything to do with him,” he said.
Joking that President Bush’s nomination by the GOP is a “distinct possibility,” Buchanan nonetheless asserted that he has pushed the Administration into taking action on conservative causes. He said he could have the same impact on the illegal immigration issue.
“I think we are going to get George Bush to do something about this before that election, or at least speak to this,” Buchanan said. “He’d better do it, or he’s going to have problems.”