Immigration Foes Retooling Caucus

Posted March 9, 2007 at 6:31pm

In a deliberate departure from the leadership style of controversial Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the new chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus is recruiting a Democratic co-chairman and attempting to transform the politically charged group into a policy-oriented outfit.

For years the caucus was exclusively Republican and did little besides providing Tancredo with a media platform. But Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) has hired an executive director to staff the group and is implementing a comprehensive business plan that aims to build a bipartisan alliance that churns out legislation addressing illegal immigration.

Bilbray is targeting four Democrats seen as receptive to co-chairing the caucus, including Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), both to depoliticize the group and in recognition of the new reality on Capitol Hill that legislation is dead absent Democratic support. Bilbray is organizing the caucus around four policy panels and an executive committee and is aggressively promoting the leaders of those committees to the media to speak on illegal immigration matters.

“I think the big thing was to take the caucus one step forward,” Bilbray said in an interview. “My proposal was to start offering answers to the problem.”

Courtney Luttig, a spokeswoman for Taylor, said her boss was receptive to Bilbray’s entreaty and impressed with the California Republican’s decision to reach out to Democrats.

Taylor is considering Bilbray’s offer. But, Luttig indicated he might pass because his current workload includes the chairmanship of four other caucuses, in addition to his recent appointment as chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and expeditionary forces.

“We’ve never had anybody reach out to us until Congressman Bilbray said something to [Taylor] on the House floor,” Luttig said, adding that her boss has given Bilbray the names of other Democrats who he believes might be open to co-chairing the caucus.

Bilbray, who represents a San Diego-area district within miles of the Mexican border, won a contentious special election last year to replace now-jailed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R).

Bilbray won that campaign in large part because of his strong position against illegal immigration. His long-held opposition to both illegal border crossers and the businesses that hire them makes Bilbray a natural fit to succeed Tancredo, whom he praised for raising illegal immigration as a political issue when doing so was unpopular.

“Tom’s time and space was to be our John the Baptist, to wake people up to the crime and sin of illegal immigration,” Bilbray said. “Everyone was just accepting it. Tom was our shock troop. That’s what we needed.”

But in retooling the caucus, Bilbray is tacitly acknowledging that some of Tancredo’s overheated rhetoric may have hurt the overall goals of those who advocate eliminating illegal immigration.

To staff the caucus, Bilbray hired senior legislative assistant Emily Sanders away from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to serve as executive director. Bilbray Communications Director Kurt Bardella has been tapped as chief spokesman for the caucus but will also continue in his current position.

Bardella and Sanders are being paid out of funds from Bilbray’s Congressional office budget.

Joining Bilbray in leading the caucus thus far are Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who are both serving on the executive committee. Additionally, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is leading the policy team on border security; Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) is leading the team on birthright citizenship; Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) is leading the team examining illegal immigration’s costs; and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) is leading the team on amnesty.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also has been playing a prominent role in the caucus of late.

“The policy changes [Bilbray] is promoting and the goals he’s set are going to make the organization effective and make our arguments persuasive,” Smith said. “He’s seeking to make it bipartisan. It’s not like some caucuses where you’re excluded on the basis of ideology.”

The Immigration Reform Caucus was founded in May 1999 by Tancredo, and he led the alliance until this year, choosing to pass on chairing the group again to allow new leaders to take a fresh look at its signature issue, said his spokesman, Carlos Espinosa. Some speculation exists that Tancredo’s possible upstart presidential bid necessitated that he relinquish the responsibility of heading the caucus.

There was no appetite among Bilbray or the other new leaders of the caucus to criticize Tancredo or his leadership of the group. But the business plan commissioned by Bilbray to revamp the group made it clear that they felt the caucus was not as effective as it could have been during the Colorado Republican’s tenure.

The seven-page business plan discusses the need to “re-brand” the caucus by reaching out to the relevant decision makers in Congress, the White House and activist groups who hold sway over immigration policy. Though Tancredo’s zeal to stop illegal immigration was never doubted and widely lauded, his lightning-rod style often rubbed even those who support his policy goals the wrong way, to say nothing of the skeptics.

Bilbray’s caucus-overhaul outline also discussed media strategy at length — and appeared to telegraph a desire to move beyond Tancredo’s handling of the group.

“Rather than have one figurehead driving media communications, it would be more productive for the IRC to have multiple advocates speaking to issues,” Bilbray’s business plan states.

At least one organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants — both legal and illegal — welcomed the caucus’s change of course, though it cautioned that the policy details the group ultimately endorses matter more than a softening of its image.

Bob Sakaniwa, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said his organization supports a “comprehensive” strategy to addressing illegal immigration, including both enforcement and a path to legalization for those who have entered the United States unlawfully. Bilbray and members of the Immigration Reform Caucus tend to oppose providing a path to legalized status for illegal immigrants.

“The optics of changing from Tancredo to Bilbray, it means they’re not as rhetorically extreme as they were before,” Sakaniwa said. “But proof will still be in what they offer in terms of policy prescriptions.”

Included in the caucus’s new blueprint is its intention to work closely with a number of third-party advocacy groups that focus on stemming illegal immigration. Bilbray plans to consult these groups and seek their input on the legislative proposals the caucus develops to address what it sees as the various problems caused by, and associated with, illegal immigration.

Among these groups are the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies and the National Border Patrol Council.

Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said his organization welcomes Bilbray’s effort to turn the caucus into an effective policy shop. He said that the issue of illegal immigration isn’t partisan, and solutions to the problem shouldn’t be, either.

“An effort to develop a bipartisan approach to immigration reform issues is not only logical, but it is demonstrated as necessary to getting legislation adopted,” Martin said.