PROVO, Utah — Rep. Chris Cannon is a loyal Republican with the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. He is unmarred by the ethical scandals that have roiled Washington in this election season.
Yet, in this conservative district more than 800 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the five-term congressman faces a tough challenge in next week’s Republican primary because, his opponent says, he’s not tough enough on illegal immigration.
Local businessman and political neophyte John Jacob says the population of illegal aliens in the United States has ballooned to at least 12 million from 5 million when Mr. Cannon first took office in 1996.
“You’ve been there for 10 years and you’ve not been effective,” Mr. Jacob said in a recent debate.
Both sides agree that the election will turn on the issue of immigration and Mr. Cannon has plenty to worry about.
In May, Mr. Jacob beat Mr. Cannon at Utah’s Republican convention in a 52-48 surprise upset. Because neither candidate collected 60 percent of the convention vote, the nominee will be picked in the Republican primary next week.
Haunting Mr. Cannon is a four-year-old quote he made before an audience at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund dinner, where he was accepting an “Excellence in Leadership” award for helping children of illegal aliens get tuition breaks at public universities.
“We love immigrants in Utah and we don’t oftentimes make the distinction between legal and illegal,” he said as C-SPAN cameras rolled. “In fact, I think Utah was the first state in the country to legislate the ability to get a driver’s license based on the matricula consular and of that I am proud.”
The matricula consular is an identification card issued by the Mexican government.
In addition to supporting legislation to grant in-state tuition rates for aliens, Mr. Cannon has lent support to President Bush’s proposal for a guest-worker program.
But, Mr. Cannon insists, he’s not soft on illegal immigration.
“Legal immigration is the rule of law and that is what I support,” he said. “I have always argued for a more workable, transparent process for people to enter legally so America can continue to grow and prosper.”
He says he does not support amnesty or the Senate’s immigration proposal that grants citizenship rights to some 10 million aliens without requiring them to first leave the United States. Also, Mr. Cannon said he voted in favor of the much tougher House bill last year to strengthen the border.
Still, Mr. Cannon finds himself in the cross hairs of not only Mr. Jacob, but also groups opposed to illegal immigration, such as a political action committee (PAC) founded by fellow House Republican Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Team America PAC is running ads against the incumbent.