Kolbe vs. Kolbe

Border issues spark a brotherly fracas

Walter Kolbe dwells on the San Pedro River, a holler from Sierra Vista and a stone's throw from the Mexican border. He gathers trash that immigrants and smugglers scatter around his B&B. Over the years, he's also steadily griped about this perpetual flotsam to his brother, Jim.

But Jim Kolbe--Congressman Jim Kolbe, that is--just stopped listening. Or so Walter Kolbe says.

Now, anyone with a lick of border smarts knows that immigration issues are big, bitter issues in these parts. Big enough and bitter enough to spark a very public fraternal fracas: brother against brother, reality against policy, with a pack of political wolves hoisting their snouts to the scent of blood.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican whose District 8 includes Cochise County, is among the key players the White House has tapped to ramrod President Bush's immigration plan through Congress. That measure would include provisions for a guest-worker program and legalization processes--prospects that render anti-immigration folks spasmodic.

And Walter Kolbe, tired of retrieving debris, is none too happy about his brother's longtime support of such measures. "We have a split on that one issue," Walter says. "Jim's in favor of the same policy that President Bush has put forward--actually, he put his own forward before the president did. I don't care how you shake a stick at it--to me, it smells of amnesty. And I'm not in favor of amnesty."

But Congressman Kolbe's office is mum on the matter. "We don't comment on personal matters," says Kolbe spokeswoman Kristen Hellmer.

This rancorous stewpot got cooking in February 2003, when Walter Kolbe and his wife stumbled across a backpack on their 20-acre spread. As reported in the Tucson Weekly ("Other Than Mexicans" by Leo W. Banks, Sept. 2, 2004), when Walter unzipped the bag, a diary written in Arabic came tumbling out.

Though the diarist was found to be a lovesick traveler rather than a terrorist, the event became politically irresistible; details of Walter Kolbe's discovery were soon hyperventilating across militant anti-immigration Web sites such as freerepublic.com and Oregon-based WorldNetDaily.com. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a constant immigration critic, polished up the story for presentation on the House floor. The diary, said the Colorado Republican, proved that terrorists "are coming across the border, because it is the easiest way to get into the United States if you want to do something bad, because our borders are undefended."

While Tancredo has advocated placing U.S. military on the border, his colleagues have charted another path. In the summer of 2003, Jim Kolbe--joined by Arizona's Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jake Flake--unveiled the Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act. It proposed guest worker visas and a process for illegal immigrants to achieve legalized status.

By fall, however, Walter Kolbe had turned up the heat, sharply criticizing the guest worker notion in an interview with the Sierra Vista Herald. (The Sierra Vista Herald is owned by Wick Communications, which also owns the Weekly.)

"We sat here ... not too long ago, and I told Jim (his) bill was wrong," Walter Kolbe explained to Herald reporter Bill Hess. "I strongly believe Jim has been one of the few voices in the wilderness concerning the problems we have here along the border with Mexico. But this latest attempt at legislation is where we part company.

"It's amnesty on the installment plan," Walter Kolbe said.

Walter was back in February 2004, with a Herald letter to the editor. "A couple of weeks ago our representative came to town," Walter Kolbe wrote. "The sad thing was, he was not our congressman. Tom Tancredo, from Colorado and not from Arizona, said the things the large majority of Arizonans, and quite possibly the whole country, had been hoping to hear from their congressman. Regrettably, Jim Kolbe is a congressman and not a representative. The difference being a representative represents the wishes of a majority of his constituents, while a congressman represents himself."


Like his diary discovery, Walter Kolbe's outspoken criticism of his brother became a big hit with Web sites such as americanpatrol.com, operated by Glenn Spencer's quasi-paramilitary anti-immigrant group near Sierra Vista. Spencer's link ran with the teaser, "Representative needed; solutions are offered."

Meanwhile, Team America PAC ("Dedicated to Defending Our Borders and Protecting American Jobs" according to its Web site) ran a copy of Walter's letter. Team America, which lists Rep. Tancredo as founding chairman, titled its entry, "Jim Kolbe's Brother Rips Into His Amnesty and Open Borders Record."

Another anti-immigration site called MichNews.com praised Walter Kolbe, and ended its broadside with a question: "Wrong brother in Congress?"

Finally, Walter was featured in a Dec. 22, 2004, CBS report about Arizona's newly passed Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship to vote or receive public benefits. The story focused on border frustrations: "These people just flood across, and they're ruining our health care system, and they're ruining our schools," Walter Kolbe told the camera. "The people are just fed up with it."

Taken together, Walter's various cameos must have made Kolbe family potlucks rather interesting.

But in a phone interview with the Tucson Weekly, Walter Kolbe seems genuinely surprised that his opinions have become political ammo. And he downplays the rift with his brother. "We only have a split on that one issue," he says.

True: Many aspects of President Bush's immigration reform plan echo facets of the earlier Kolbe-McCain-Flake plan. In fact, Bush has tapped Jim Kolbe and Arizona Senators McCain and Jon Kyl to help him prod the measure through Congress.

But as it's done to the brothers Kolbe, this version of immigration reform is already sparking fierce squabbling among Republicans.

After failing in efforts to insert strong immigration measures in December's sweeping intelligence bill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner is now demanding that strict restrictions--such as blocking illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses--appear in any immigration legislation. The Wisconsin Republican is also pushing asylum restrictions and more border fencing. But those measures face tough Senate opposition.

That said, it's tough to gauge what impact Walter Kolbe's public stance will have on his brother's political capabilities as the latest immigration tangle heats up. "Jim (Kolbe) already has his detractors, and they're going to try to make more hay over this," says John Garcia, a UA political science professor. "As for Walter Kolbe, welcome to the political world."