Talk-radio fans unite on immigration

Times Staff Writer

John and Ken, the Los Angeles-area radio talk-show hosts, were on the air. They discussed claims by the Homeland Security secretary that more guards had been stationed along the Mexico border. “Outright blatant lies!” John said. They trashed the Border Patrol chief. “A cardboard bureaucrat,” he added.

From the back of a crowded hotel conference room here, where the pair was broadcasting on KFI-AM, one listener couldn’t contain himself. “You betcha!” he roared, and the sympathetic audience erupted in laughter.

For four days this week, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou joined more than 30 other radio hosts from across the country, broadcasting live from Washington to demand immigration laws that secure the border, punish employers who hire illegal immigrants, and deny citizenship to immigrants who sneaked into the country.

They brought with them a chorus of more than 600 listeners, who lobbied lawmakers and provided a refrain of cheers and groans during the daily 5 a.m.-to-midnight broadcast marathon.

Though immigration-crackdown advocates on talk radio can often be brash and alarmist, these listeners appeared calmer and gentler.


It’s not clear how much of an impact these listener-lobbyists will have on the debate in Washington. But as Congress prepares to again take up immigration, in May, there is no mistaking their determination.

“We will make Congress listen and hear,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that helped organize the event, the second of its kind.

Those who made the lobbying trip spanned old to young. They wore their patriotism on their sleeves, in the form of American flag clothing and pins. Many were military veterans. Most, but not all, were white -- and they bristled at charges of racism. They said the accusation was meant to silence them.

“Brown, black, white, they’re all here,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a firebrand critic of illegal immigration.

This crowd loves Tancredo. Largely Republican, the listeners have contempt for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) but save special fury for President Bush -- who, like Kennedy, wants to offer a path to legal status for people in the country illegally. “Amnesty,” they disdainfully brand it. They draw a straight line between Bush and the only beneficiary they see: corporations that get cheap, replaceable labor.

Passionate, committed and largely middle class, they see themselves as a silent majority given a voice through radio.

Retired doctor Ralph Hylinski made the trip from Alamo, Calif., motivated partly by concern about what he sees as the country’s cultural fragmentation and the need for English as a common language.

Carol Angus, owner of an asphalt paving company in Ramona, Calif., said it was hard for her firm to compete against those who hire illegal immigrants. She visited lawmakers with Ray Boettinger of Escondido, who is angry about the border’s effect on national security and “the fact that the federal government is not trying to do anything about it.”

For these listeners and others, the trip transformed airwaves into community, physically linking them with others who share their anger and unease about immigration.

“This has been a great place to test ideas, share ideas, lobby our congressmen and make connections,” Hylinski said. “We didn’t know who was in the fight with us, and this gives us a chance to meet them.”

Hylinski reeled off examples of the negative effect that he said illegal immigration had had on California, starting with “unlimited population expansion, overwhelmed schools and medical facilities.” He fended off an interruption -- “I’m not done yet!” -- and went on to list overcrowded jails, drug trafficking, damage to private property and destruction of the environment along the border.

His solution: “All we have to do is enforce the laws on the books, but Bush doesn’t want that. If he wanted to, the borders could be shut tomorrow.”

Michael Crowe of Alexandria, Va., laid out a more immediate ambition. He suggested that an airwave onslaught could slow legislation on immigrants’ status until preoccupation with the 2008 presidential races made it impossible to proceed. “As long as we can hold them off, the better our chances of victory,” said the self-described immigration reform activist.

The event was organized to make lawmakers feel the heat. Listeners were divided into lobbying teams, each of which visited 10 to 12 lawmakers. They carried worksheets that suggested questions (“Ask if they support jobs for Mexican truckers in favor of U.S. truckers”) and left space for a report of each visit. Those reports documented each lawmaker’s position on securing the borders, “amnesty,” a presidential pardon for two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler, and “any other interesting comments.”

When the listener-lobbyists returned to their base near the Capitol, they could enter the warren of low-ceilinged conference rooms and go on-air to discuss their Hill encounters.

Higher-profile hosts like John and Ken got larger spaces or their own rooms. In other rooms, several hosts shared space separated by plastic dividers. Tables were laden with electrical equipment that sprouted thick tangles of wires. Slender rods rose from the confusion and blossomed into fat red, blue or yellow foam microphones. Late in the afternoon a constant hum of velvety baritones and staccato altos was occasionally punctuated by the less practiced delivery of a guest.

At one table, Adam McManus of San Antonio-based KSLR-AM, sat under a banner that read “Talk Radio With Guts.” Curled intently over his microphone, he told his listeners that it was “so critical that you don’t stew in your own juices” and reeled off phone numbers of the state’s senators.

Beside him, Neil Valentine, host of a national show broadcast from Nashville greeted a guest from Texas who expressed surprise Tennessee had “a problem” with illegal immigrants.

“They’re everywhere, man,” Valentine told him. “We’ve all got a problem.”