Groups opposing undocumented workers have long portrayed Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, as an arch enemy sympathetic to illegals. But Cannon is now depicting himself in a mail ad as just the opposite, as a tough enforcer seeking deportation.
"Come to America, but come here legally," says the ad that includes a picture of a fence and the Mexican border. While listing numerous enforcement actions Cannon supports, it adds, "Cannon wants to replace catch and release' with catch and deport."'
Has Cannon undergone an election-year conversion amid attacks from GOP primary election challenger Jason Chaffetz that Cannon is too soft on immigration?
"No. I have been consistent," Cannon said. "I have always been hard-core (on enforcement). My voting record is perfect on enforcement. ... I am in favor of protecting our borders." He says Chaffetz is actually the one who is changing and has moderated his earlier stands.
Chaffetz, in turn, said he's kept the same "reasonable but tough" approach throughout his campaign. It's Cannon, he says, who's flip-flopped.
"There is nothing in the record to reflect that (Cannon's) been consistently tough on immigration," Chaffetz said. "He gets tough on immigration about two weeks before an election. That's it."
Regardless, Cannon's new ad sent to voters in his district does not mention the one stand that has brought opposition from groups opposing undocumented workers: support for a "temporary guest worker" program.
In fact, when President Bush gave a 2004 speech to propose allowing illegal aliens to achieve renewable, temporary legal status as a possible pathway to citizenship, Cannon was among a few whom the White House invited to cheer on the president in person. Since then, Cannon has been seen as a leader in Congress for that proposal.
"I still support that," Cannon said, and he has been pushing it in an agricultural bill. But he says he also believes immigration laws must be enforced and says he surprised some in Congress by taking tough stands on that while still favoring a guest worker program. He adds that those here illegally must pay a price.
"I have always believed there should be some kind of penalty for people who break the law," and said illegals who participate in a guest worker program would need to pay a fine or meet other penalties with no true amnesty allowed for them.
He said he has been "agnostic" about whether America should require such people to return to their home countries before they can apply for U.S. citizenship.
However, Chaffetz says his "crystal clear" view is that the only pathway to citizenship is for those here illegally to return to their home country. That is a contrast to Cannon's plan.
Chaffetz adds he wants to come up with a solution to what he sees as an immoral status quo, which exploits low skilled immigrant workers. That's why he said he'd push for visa reform, if elected, along with getting tough on enforcement.
"The idea that it's OK to have this second class of people because it's good for the economy is a very immoral position to take," Chaffetz said. "That's the Cannon position."
Either way, both candidates say immigration ranks as a top issue in the district. Chaffetz says it ranks only behind energy costs and federal fiscal responsibility.
Cannon said polling by his campaign shows that immigration is secondary to such things as the economy or the price of gasoline. Still, it was key enough for him to send out the mail ad focusing only on it.
Cannon adds, "We certainly polled it (immigration) to see were people are. But I didn't do it to decide where I am," and said poll results have not changed his stands.
But Cannon charges that Chaffetz has moderated his tough stands.
"Here's a guy who before the convention was acting like Utah's version of (Rep.) Tom Tancredo (a strident congressional foe of illegals), who now...in his Web site says illegal should be able to stay and get a temporary pass, and not do anything," such as pay a fine.
Chaffetz says he's been steadfast in insisting the only way undocumented workers could hope for citizenship under his plan would be to return to their home countries and apply from there. Chaffetz does have a plan for undocumented workers, but he calls it a "pathway to deportation." Undocumented workers could sign up for temporary visas, and would have to leave the country when their visa expires, or face jail time along with deportation.
"Mr. Cannon has been one of the great impediments to solving this problem," Chaffetz said. "The bottom line is immigration has gotten worse during Cannon's term, not better."
Amid Cannon's claims to be tough as nails against illegals, anti-undocumented worker groups have been funneling money to Chaffetz this year as they have to Cannon opponents in the past.
Such groups have given Chaffetz $7,724 so far, about 5 percent of the total he has raised from all sources.
Cannon has attacked such groups in the past. In a 2004 House hearing, he attacked several of them as being funded or headed by John Tanton, whose goals Cannon said have "been very clear, that is: zero population, sterilization, abortion, eugenics, euthanasia." The groups said Cannon's assertions were "absurd."
Cannon speaks Spanish, and was an LDS missionary in Guatemala. He has long advocated immigration reform to help attract Hispanic voters to the GOP. He has even addressed rallies of Hispanics seeking such reform, such as one held when Bush visited Utah in 2006.
Mike Sizer, a Utah County GOP delegate and a board member for the anti-illegal immigration group Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, says he's concerned that Cannon hasn't taken back his support for past measures that many see as amnesty, such as a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to earn legal status by attending college.
"It does seem like he's changed his tune," Sizer said. "I'm a little bit skeptical ... He hasn't proposed a bill lately, but he hasn't rescinded his past support of bills that a lot of people called amnesty."
However, Matt Throckmorton, a former foe of Cannon, now says the Congressman is being treated unfairly. Throckmorton unsuccessfully sought to unseat Cannon in a 2002 congressional bid.
Throckmorton points out that Cannon has voted for get-tough measures such as building border fences and adding agents to the border patrol."If you are in office you vote yes or no," he said. "He's doing what a lot of people have asked of him ... His votes are certainly taking the enforcement side in the right direction."