Rep. Brian Bilbray
The Immigration Reform Caucus (IRC), a grouping of 112 U.S. representatives, attests to the rising strength of immigration restrictionism over the past decade. Founded by Cong. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.) in 1999, the Immigration Reform Caucus grew from fewer than a dozen members in its first year to 55 members in 2005, and over the last three years its membership has doubled, rising to 112 members in summer 2008.
Cong. Brian Bilbray (R-Calf), who succeeded Tancredo as caucus chairman in February 2007, said, “The issue of illegal immigration has become one of the most important debates in Congress and throughout the United States as the American people have begun to understand how the federal government’s failure to address illegal immigration has negatively impacted our communities. The IRC is an organization dedicated towards identifying legislative solutions to address the issue of illegal immigration.”
When passing the leadership of the caucus to Bilbray, Tancredo said, “Congressman Bilbray was asked to lead the IRC because of his pragmatic approach to the illegal immigration issue. Brian has held the line against amnesty, fought for border security and will be a terrific leader of the Immigration Reform Caucus.”
For his part, Bilbray honored Tancredo upon taking over as chairman, and he said that he would work “to expand the Immigration Reform Caucus to include lawmakers from both parties who share our commitment to address illegal immigration in America.”
In his first year and a half as caucus chair, Bilbray did not succeeded in attracting new Democratic members to the overwhelmingly Republican caucus. However, one of the IRC’s six Democratic members, Heath Shuler from North Carolina, took the lead in introducing the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act (SAVE Act), an aggressive immigration law enforcement bill has received the strong backing of the caucus.
Few of the caucus members come from districts with large numbers of Latinos or illegal immigrants. A 2007 study by the Center for New Community, a faith-based social justice organization, found that the average percentage of Latino residents was only 7.4% in the districts of caucus members and that Latinos composed only 2% of the population in a large number of the districts. The study also noted that the “entire caucus is white.”
The growth of the Immigration Reform Caucus has paralleled the rise in restrictionist sentiment across the country. Although immigration restrictionism has only rarely proved to be an issue that wins elections, the restrictionist call for strict enforcement of immigration laws and for increased border control has won increasing bipartisan support.
Like many other caucus members, Tom Tancredo came to Congress in the 1990s as a social conservative with the backing of the Religious Right. Although not from a district with a large immigrant community, Tancredo made immigration restrictionism a personal crusade when he entered Congress.
As Tancredo explained, “When I came into Congress I approached Lamar Smith, who was “the Man” on immigration, and said to him, ‘I’ve come to help you on this issue.’ I felt it was one of the most serious we face as a nation. Lamar said, ‘It’s all yours! I’ve had it with 10 years of busting my head against the wall!’ I started doing special orders -- that’s when you speak to an empty chamber and whoever is watching C-SPAN -- and I did that night after night and wondered if it was worth it; was anyone paying attention? Then I’d go back to my office to pick up my keys and I’d see all the telephone lines illuminated, and the fax machine would be going, and a pile of e-mails would be handed to me the next day.”
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks Tancredo and other caucus members integrated a national security perspective into their immigration restrictionism. As Tancredo asserted on his campaign website: "The war America is already engaged in will not be fought like the wars of the past. After witnessing the tragic terrorist attacks against the nation, it is now time to coordinate the efforts of federal, state, and local agencies to provide better homeland defense.
“Tomorrow's attacker is more likely to board a commercial airliner bound for the United States with a tourist or student visa—or he may simply walk across our porous southern or northern border carrying a device in his backpack. These issues must be addressed. We are, I believe, in a clash of civilizations. That clash is fought on many fronts—some military, some diplomatic, and still others, ideological."
The Immigration Reform Caucus has worked closely with the leading Washington, DC restrictionist institutes, notably NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
According to the Center for New Community report Nativism in the House, “Numbers USA lobbyists Rosemary Jenks and Linda Perdue served as ‘virtual staffers’ for Rep. Tancredo, while working out of his office, helping coordinate Immigration Reform Caucus meetings, and providing regular legislative counsel.”
Like Tancredo, Bilbray has made immigration restrictionism central to his political career. After first representing California’s 49th district from 1995 to 2001, Bilbray stayed in Washington, where he worked as a lobbyist and immigration consultant for four years.
During this interim in his political career, Bilbray received $300,000 from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the country’s leading restrictionist institutes, for his lobbying and public relations work. According to Bilbray he was an “immigration consultant” with FAIR. Taking issue with those who described him as an immigration lobbyist, Bilbray said, “Less than 20 percent of my activities for FAIR involved lobbying, the other 80 percent involved community outreach, public relations, issues development and research.”
In 2006 Bilbray campaigned to represent California’s 50th district, winning the wealthy district north of San Diego on a hard-line restrictionist platform. According to OpenSecrets, Bilbray in 2006 received nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions from members of FAIR's board of directors: Nancy Anthony, Sharon Barnes, General Douglas E. Caton, Sarah Epstein, Stephen Swensrud and Alan Weeden. Bilbray, a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, serves as co-chair of FAIR’s national advisory committee.
According to one lobbyist, Bilbray’s “incredible access” to the House of Representatives has helped FAIR in its work on immigration reform. On its website, FAIR noted its close association with the caucus: “The House and Senate have returned to Washington to start the second session of the 107th Congress. FAIR has been working with the Immigration Reform Caucus to cultivate more members and to help them pass immigration reduction measures.”
In 2008 Bilbray and the caucus have put their legislative attention on passing the SAVE Act. As Bilbray explained, “Thanks to the energetic work of Republicans and some sober-minded Democrats, the House may indeed get to vote on immigration reform legislation worthy of the name sometime soon. The bill…aims to dramatically reduce the number of illegal aliens in the United States through stepped-up enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. Mr. Shuler's bill offers a detailed blueprint for achieving this, which includes increasing the number of border patrol agents and providing incentives to recruit and train them; hiring more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to strengthen interior enforcement; and hiring more federal judges to hear cases against people who smuggle drugs and humans.”
Backed by over 160 congressional representatives, including forty Democrats, the SAVE Act is being promoted by immigration restrictionist organizations, such as NumbersUSA, Federation for American Immigration Reform, and Eagle Forum, as providing legislative authority for their “enforcement only” strategy.
But rather calling for a massive deportation of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants, the restrictionists are currently mobilizing behind an “attrition through enforcement” campaign that puts “constant pressure on illegal aliens and their employers by ICE and local governments.” According to NumbersUSA President Roy Beck, an “attrition through enforcement” strategy is the “most effective and efficient solution” to “our illegal immigration nightmare.”
Bilbray is a frequent guest on CNN (Lou Dobbs Tonight, Glenn Beck, Situation Room) and FOX News.
In early 2000 restrictionists in the U.S. Senate formed a counterpart to the House caucus called the Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus.
- Tom Barry, August 15, 2008
Right Web Profile: Federation for American Immigration Reform
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