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My taco with Tancredo

I never thought GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo would eat Mexican food with me. The Colorado congressman has proposed anti-immigration legislation so draconian that he’s been banned from the White House and called a “nut” by Jeb Bush. And I definitely never thought Tancredo would tell me that Mexican is his favorite cuisine. That was like finding out that CNN’s Nancy Grace gets turned on by violent criminals. Only surprising.

Tancredo agreed to our Mexican lunch during a campaign sweep through Iowa last month. But the night before our appointment, I found out he was already headed to Mami’s Authentic Mexican Food in Muscatine for dinner. The man was planning two Mexican meals in a row. I had little to teach him.

On my way to Mami’s, however, I got a call from his aide. A local Republican had tipped Tancredo off to the fact that Mami’s owners marched in the Great American Boycott on May Day 2006. So Tancredo was now driving all the way to Davenport to go to Carlos O’Kelly’s Mexican Cafe instead. If his campaign staff was as skilled at finding voters as Mexican restaurants in Iowa, Tancredo would win the nomination.

Carlos O’Kelly’s makes the finest Mexican food with an Irish flair of any chain restaurant in Iowa. The enchiladas came with a sort of hollandaise sauce that constituted a greater insult to Mexicans than anything Tancredo has ever said. Tancredo, who is a very likable, polite man, gave the food a very generous C+. “I was sick we couldn’t go to Mami’s. I heard it was good,” he said. “But if they’re going to boycott America, I’m going to boycott Mami’s.” Looking at my enchiladas, he sighed. “For all I know, this place is owned by a big liberal.” A big liberal who hates food.

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Our waiter, Josh, was one of the nicest, most incompetent servers either of us had ever encountered. He kept running away in the middle of our orders, apparently distracted by either Mexican or Irish things. I told Tancredo that I wished we were at an L.A. restaurant with a Mexican waiter filling our chip basket every two minutes. “I’m with you,” he said. “These people that come to our country are generally hard workers, and bless them for it.”

For all his talk of assimilation, Tancredo conceded that Carlos O’Kelly’s may, in fact, have gone too far. He truly enjoys the authentic Mexican restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Colorado. “Food and music are things America has always been able to accommodate and benefit from,” he said. “The thing that is difficult is the lack of assimilation. It has nothing to do with the appreciation of ethnicity.” So Tancredo’s complaints, like those of many who oppose immigration, come down to which aspects of Mexican culture he is personally comfortable with: language and flags, no; burritos and ballet folklorico, yes.

History, Tancredo knows, hasn’t been kind to anti-immigrant crusaders -- the Know-Nothing Party, the No-Irish-Need-Apply sign makers, the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. “But things are very different today,” he said. “Can you think of a time historically when you had millions of people in the street on May Day saying very, very divisive stuff?” He feels that if America is too diverse, we’ll be stripped of our national identity, no longer bound together as a country. He also feels certain that he has the wisdom to determine exactly how much diversity is OK.

Odds are, I told him, history will judge him a racist. That may be so, he said. Still, he’s sure the U.S. will rally behind his cures: kick illegal immigrants out; build an effective border fence; force legal immigrants to assimilate faster. “Years from now, they’ll say there was no problem. They’ll say ‘These guys were racists and fear mongers.’ ... That’s a big cost, you bet your life,” he said. “But we’ll have solved the problem.”

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I never liked someone I disagreed with so strongly. He believes he is doing the best thing for his country. I watched him talk to rabid anti-immigrant groups for two days, and he never spoke with anger, just sadness that something he loves is being lost. Tancredo may be a reactionary, a xenophobe and a nationalist, but he isn’t a racist.

However, if he gets his way -- even if history proves him wrong -- his personal cost will be much smaller than that paid by the millions of Mexicans denied the opportunities his own grandparents got. And smaller still than the cost to us all when America loses the very thing that historically has given it advantages in economic growth and innovation.

Before we left, I asked Tancredo: Instead of struggling with the problems that stem from illegal immigration, why don’t we just let more people in legally? “Just so I can have a good Mexican restaurant?” he asked. How a man who ate the same meal as me can even ask that question is beyond my understanding.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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