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A new Spanish verb: Sensenbrenner

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

July 3, 2006

2006-07-03 Germantown, Wis. -- Sensenbrenner has become a new verb in Spanish. Not a polite one, either.

It's an odd turn for Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who for 28 years has represented the suburbs that ring Milwaukee, where most last names are German and the closest border lies north, with Canada.

The old dairy barns that still dot what is left of farmland stand as signatures of the not-far-removed immigrant forebears of the affluent suburbanites who live there today. Their curved Gothic roofs and fieldstone walls were built by peasants who fled famine and poverty in Germany, Norway, Wales and Ireland, or merely sought a better life in the rolling green dairy lands of Wisconsin. They were soon followed by Poles and Italians who worked in the factories that still turn out Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Miller beer.

Today they live in tidy villages on the shore of Lake Michigan or in the booming suburbs to the west. Some still wear Bavarian jackets to Sensenbrenner's town hall meetings, and applaud his defense of the bill he wrote that would fence out Mexicans and make felons of illegal immigrants and those who help them.

They are affluent, overwhelmingly white and deeply Republican. They are Midwestern, plain-spoken, patriotic and friendly. They invite strangers to stay for meat loaf. They are fond of rules and order. They don't like lawbreaking. They respect hard work.

They now find themselves in the unlikely position of supporting the man who has made himself the bulwark against efforts to expand legal immigration.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner answers a constituant's question during a town hall meeting held by the Congressman in the Thiensville Town Hall Sunday, June 25, 2006, in Thiensville, Wis. (Peter Zuzga/Special to the Chronicle) Ran on: 06-29-2006 Rep. James Sensenbren- ner says he will try today to get a majority of his committee to OK the bill. Ran on: 07-03-2006 James Sensenbrenner is one of the GOP's leaders on immigration policy. Ran on: 07-03-2006 James Sensenbrenner is one of the GOP's leaders on immigration policy. Ran on: 07-03-2006PETER ZUZGA

"That's a thorny thing for us," said Ray Etzel, a longtime Republican in Menomonee Falls, where Sensenbrenner keeps a condo. Etzel has known Sensenbrenner for 40 years -- although like many who have known him for decades, not personally.

"My folks immigrated in 1842 from Ireland and Germany; Bavaria at the time," Etzel said. "I can see where they want to better themselves, and yet my folks came in legally and these folks are coming in illegally. I know things aren't as good in Mexico as they are here. I know they send money home for their families, and that's good. I think we ought to obey the law, but I understand why they don't."

Immigration wasn't much on people's minds in the Fifth District until Sensenbrenner put it there, by virtue of his Judiciary Committee chairmanship. Such chairmanships are born of impregnable districts like the Fifth, happily gerrymandered by both parties to re-elect incumbents year after year.

In December, Sensenbrenner, a former House manager of President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, wrote an enforcement-only bill that would pre-empt President Bush's call for a guest worker program. It quickly passed the House without hearings.

Within three months, the "Sensenbrenner bill" had become a lightning rod, deeply polarizing the national debate on immigration.

Conservatives rallied behind "border security," while Hispanics and their allies staged large-scale national protests. Although Bush had spent six years courting the Hispanic vote and pushing for changes in immigration law, the administration had quietly backed the House bill to mollify conservatives.

But the backlash set off alarms at the White House. Sensenbrenner, much like former California Gov. Pete Wilson, became a dirty word and the face of the Republican Party to Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group.

The Senate soon countered with a hard-fought bipartisan bill -- backed by Bush -- that would crack down on the border but also provide many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Sensenbrenner denounced it as amnesty and vowed to block it. His response to Bush's program was a blunt, "He just doesn't get it."

A conservative populist, Sensenbrenner, 63, frames immigration as a law-and-order issue. He links it with terrorism, the "disgusting and immoral" business of human trafficking and drug dealing. That hits home with most Americans. It is an important distinction. If the question were just immigration -- how many people should come and who -- instead of illegal immigration -- should they come at all -- the debate might be very different.

Like Etzel, many others in Sensenbrenner's district like to say their relatives came to America legally. For most European immigrants, however, legality was never an issue. U.S. borders were open to Europeans before 1924. There were no quotas, no visas, no Border Patrol. Millions simply showed up.

Charlie Sykes, a popular conservative talk radio host in Milwaukee who often has Sensenbrenner on his show -- although Sykes disagrees with him on immigration -- said the illegality of immigration irks people.

"It's like, what part of illegal don't you understand?" Sykes said. He noted a remarkably distinct turning point in the popular mood that arrived with the second wave of protests this spring when, he said, "an extremely strong backlash" emerged.

People called in saying, "You're here illegally and making demands and not showing up for work?" Sykes said.

If one were to take 100 average Wisconsin Republicans and ask them if they supported Sensenbrenner or Bush on immigration, Sykes said Sensenbrenner would win hands down.

Sensenbrenner's viewpoint also taps into the economic insecurity that plagues the region. He accuses manufacturers of seeking cheap immigrant labor at the expense of American workers. His bill would sharply raise fines on these employers, and he has said a $25 million fine or two would send a message fast.

"They're taking jobs away from all of us," agreed Ron Kuenstler of Saukville, who works at a nearby spring factory. "They're willing to work for less money than people like us need to live on. Look at this small community. The average home is going for $180,000. Can somebody who works for $20,000 afford homes like that?"

Perley Kilne, who works in a tool and die factory in nearby Grafton, agreed. "My forefathers built this country for us, their children," Kilne said. "Not for people to pile in and take their jobs away."

But Katie Grevenow, 21, of Saukville, working as a waitress, disagreed.

"Half the people I work with are immigrants," she said. "They're really nice. I like them."

Two brothers, age 19 and 16, came from Mexico to work with her as a cook and a dishwasher. They told her they traveled five days to get to Wisconsin, often without food and water.

"They work really hard," Grevenow said. "They're supergood workers. I really respect them. They just want a better life. I don't like the fact that they're breaking the law, but I feel if I was in their place, I'd want to be here, too."

Many of Sensenbrenner's constituents who are long acquainted with him believe his take-no-prisoners approach is just a negotiating tactic.

"I think people here support both sides," said Don Taylor, Republican Party chairman for Waukesha County, the heart of Sensenbrenner's district. Taylor has known Sensenbrenner since they were in the Young Republicans more than 40 years ago.

"I feel the sentiment in the county is very strong that the border needs to controlled," Taylor said. "At the same time, we value -- to put it mildly -- we value the immigrants who have come to this county for decades, Germans, Welsh, Italians, Greeks, Hispanics. I think the general feeling is that not only would it be impossible to expel all of the illegal immigrants, but it would be unwise to do so."

By all accounts and observations, Sensenbrenner is an unusually abrasive politician who brusquely lectures constituents, but at the same time tirelessly courts them at parades, pancake breakfasts and town hall meetings, putting a premium on constituent services that they well remember.

Rumpled and jowly, he walks in Fourth of July parades wearing, "I'm going to call it an apron, this white thing that goes over his head like a banner," said Joe Greco, former village president of Menomonee Falls who has known Sensenbrenner for years.

"I always laugh when I see it," Greco said. "I tell him, 'Jim, people know who you are.' "

Born to the Kimberly Clark paper products fortune, Sensenbrenner cracks few jokes, but one he likes to make is that he is glad his great-grandfather, inventor of Kotex, did not name the product Sensenbrenners.

As a teenager at the exclusive Milwaukee Country Day School, Sensenbrenner spurned debutant balls and developed a passion for politics. He studied political science at Stanford University, law at the University of Wisconsin and almost immediately ran for the state Legislature.

Despite his wealth, Sensenbrenner drives unfashionably dated Cadillacs, though he has a Nicaraguan maid at his home near Washington -- naturalized, he is quick to say.

Notoriously frugal, he pocketed the $250,000 he won with $2 in lottery tickets in 1997 while on a beer run for his office Christmas party, a sore point with critics who contend he lacks charitable instincts. He has come under recent scrutiny by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for accepting more lobbyist-paid travel than anyone in Congress, taking more than of $200,000 in trips since 2000 to everywhere from Liechtenstein to Las Vegas.

Sensenbrenner, regarded as intelligent, driven and possessing encyclopedic knowledge, is described even by allies as unusually stubborn. Once he makes up his mind on something, people say, he doesn't budge.

Asked if he had discussed immigration with Sensenbrenner, Taylor said, "Put it this way. He's a strong-willed guy and he knows what he thinks, and he doesn't necessarily want to have somebody else do his thinking for him."

To his supporters, including Taylor, he is a man of conviction and principle. To his detractors, he is a smug, race-baiting heir to Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Everyone except his opponents this year -- Green Party candidate and former classmate Bob Levis and Bryan Kennedy, running uphill as a "Goldwater Democrat" -- acknowledges that Sensenbrenner's district is so safe he can do whatever he pleases.

As he did last Sunday at his town hall meeting in the village of Thiensville, which he ruled over as if he were chairing the Judiciary Committee.

Those who wished to speak were directed to submit their names and addresses on a slip of paper, which he curtly snapped from the hand of his assistant as they trickled in. Daryl Morin, a self-described proud Hispanic Republican -- albeit from a neighboring district -- pleaded with Sensenbrenner to consider a more moderate approach on immigration.

Sensenbrenner replied with a long dissertation on the flaws of the Senate bill. When Morin politely suggested that he would like to open a dialogue, Sensenbrenner snapped back, "I think we're doing that now."

Sensenbrenner's district has a Latino enclave in the city of Waukesha, whose first Mexican immigrants arrived with the construction of the railroads.

Dionisia Olmos, 33, owner of a mortgage company, has joined the Waukesha County GOP. Her father immigrated illegally to Chicago where he worked at a golf course, taking his 12 children with him. Unable to support his family, he sent the younger ones, including Olmos, back to Mexico with their mother, where they lived without running water or electricity.

In 1986, her father gained amnesty under the law that Sensenbrenner vows never to repeat. Olmos was in Mexico and did not qualify. But at age 15 she married a man in the United States and decided to return.

"Mexico is a wonderful country," she said, "but you can't survive on what they pay you. I had a lot of things I needed to do. I'm a very hardworking lady, and I really needed to do my dream."

She said she crossed the border in 1988 at least five times, and was turned back each time by the same Border Patrol officer on horseback. She wore a Chicago Cubs jacket, and the guide told her to close her eyes so the flashlights wouldn't pick them up. She would open them each time to see the officer sitting on his horse looking at her. He kept telling her she would never get to Chicago and to give up.

After the fifth time, it became a joke, and he gave her his card. She told him she would call him from Chicago. She finally succeeded. "It was really, really hard," she remembered, crossing the Rio Grande in a raft at night.

Her brother discovered Waukesha in the Army. She joined him and worked in a factory. Eventually she wound up as a bank teller. She met Taylor, the county GOP chairman, and his son at their bank, and later they recruited her for the party, convincing her that her values matched those of Republicans. The younger Taylor gave her the bank loan to start her business, which now has four branches and 22 loan officers.

Olmos wanted to work inside the party to change the minds of Republicans who oppose immigrants like her who came illegally. But now she expresses doubts.

She feels intimidated at meetings, especially when talk began about a mailing for Sensenbrenner.

"I thought, 'what am I doing here?' " Olmos said. "They're supporting this law, they're supporting Sensenbrenner. They think people should come here legally. But I ask them, how can they come here legally? Tell me."

Olmos, the mother of three teenagers, finally got her green card in 2001 through her brother. She soon will be eligible for citizenship and wants to vote.

She said she wishes Sensenbrenner "would become Mexican for a day. I wish he would exchange nationalities with me. I challenge him to do that, and I'll take him back to Mexico and have him cross the border with me, and see if he can do it."

It was suggested that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee would not want to break the law.

Olmos replied, "He would do it if he's poor. If he sees his family doesn't even have a glass of clean water. He would do it if he knows that his family goes to bed hungry and has nothing else to eat. If he had nothing in his pocket, I think he would do it. He would break the law."

James Sensenbrenner

Age: 63

Party: Republican

Elective office: House member representing southeast Wisconsin since 1978; state assemblyman, 1968-1974; state senator, 1974-1978

Profession: Lawyer

Education: Bachelor's degree, Stanford University, 1965; law degree, University of Wisconsin, 1968

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1991 to 2018, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University.


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