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POLITICS-US: More of the Same from House Immigration Caucus?

Bill Berkowitz*

OAKLAND, United States, Mar 27 2007 (IPS) - Turning away from the pugnacious rhetorical style of its founder and former chair Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, the House Immigration Reform Caucus (HIRC), now chaired by Rep. Brian Bilbray, seems desirous of setting a kinder gentler course for itself, yet it appears to be headed in the same old direction.

While being careful not to publicly rebuke Tancredo, who in May 1999 founded HIRC and subsequently brought national attention to immigration issues, Bilbray, a California Republican who won a contentious election in his San Diego-area district close to the Mexican border – replacing the scandal plagued and now-jailed Republican congressman Duke Cunningham – has hired a new executive director and a new communications director.

According to Roll Call, the Congressional newspaper, he is “implementing a comprehensive business plan that aims to build a bipartisan alliance that churns out legislation addressing illegal immigration.” The caucus has also, for the first time, signaled a willingness to bring a Democratic congressperson on to HIRC as its co-chair.

HIRC, which has grown from a dozen members in its early days to more than 90 by this year, “has long been regarded as a group of the most extremist politicians in Washington, people who were willing to traffic in the most outrageous allegations in a bid to restrict immigration,” Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, told IPS.

“Before 9/11, the caucus was tiny, about half a dozen far-right congressmen. It expanded greatly in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, swelled by politicians who apparently believed immigration was somehow connected to the al Qaeda attacks.”

Devin Burghart, the programme director of the Building Democracy Initiative at the Chicago, Illinois-based Centre for New Community, notes that, “The realities of a Democratic-controlled Congress, combined with declining caucus membership, means diminished political space for the unrestrained nativism that the HIRC had displayed in the GOP-controlled years.”

“Additionally, the racism, nativism, and Islamophobia expressed by Tancredo tarnished the image of the caucus and created a lot of enemies on the Hill,” he told IPS.

Burghart pointed out that “Heading into the 110th Congress, some supporters seriously doubted HIRC’s ability to curtail the momentum building for comprehensive immigration reform, let alone pass additional anti-immigrant legislation. Hence the ‘retooling.’ However, these cosmetic alterations do little to change the caucus.”

“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 told Roll Call. “Everyone was just accepting it. Tom was our shock troop. That’s what we needed.”

The newly initiated makeover, however, appears to indicate that the days of incendiary rhetoric are over. According to Roll Call, “Bilbray is tacitly acknowledging that some of Tancredo’s overheated rhetoric may have hurt the overall goals of those who advocate eliminating illegal immigration.”

According to Potok, “The recent leadership change appears to be both an attempt to camouflage what this caucus was historically really about – attacking immigrants as individuals as well as immigration policy – and a rebuke of sorts to Tom Tancredo [currently running to be the Republican Party’s presidential standard bearer in 2008], who is widely seen, even within Congress, as a loudmouthed embarrassment.”

“It’s worth remembering” added Potok, “that presidential adviser Karl Rove, certainly no ‘open-borders’ leftist, once told Tancredo never to ‘darken the door’ of the White House again, after the congressman bitterly attacked President [George W.] Bush on immigration policy. In fact, Tancredo once told an audience of Minutemen – people characterised by the president as ‘vigilantes’ – that Bush should have to write an apology 100 times on a blackboard, then lick the board clean. This is a hard man for even the most conservative of mainstream politicians to get behind.”

Senior legislative assistant Emily Sanders was hired away from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, to serve as executive director. Bilbray’s Communications Director Kurt Bardella has been tapped as chief spokesman for the caucus but will also continue in his current position. Both positions are being funded by Bilbray’s Congressional office budget.

In mid-March, Roll Call reported that the new chairman was “targeting four Democrats seen as receptive to co-chairing the caucus, including Rep. Gene Taylor (of Mississippi), both to depoliticise the group and in recognition of the new reality on Capitol Hill that legislation is dead absent Democratic support.”

Part of the reorganisation of the caucus consists of organising “around four policy panels and an executive committee and… aggressively promoting the leaders of those committees to the media to speak on illegal immigration matters.”

Other leaders of the caucus are Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Lamar Smith of Texas, who are both serving on the executive committee, Rep. Ed Royce of California who “is leading the policy team on border security”; Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia, who “is leading the team on birthright citizenship”; Rep. Ted Poe of Texas who “is leading the team examining illegal immigration’s costs”; and Rep. John Culberson of Texas, who “is leading the team on amnesty,” Roll Call reported.

The new business plan talks about “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,” according to Roll Call. “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 sceptics.”

HIRC’s media strategy is also discussed in the business plan, with Bilbray appearing to clearly want the group to move away from Tancredo’s leadership style. “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.

HIRC’s new plan talks about the benefits of consulting and working with a number of groups currently focusing on illegal immigration, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Centre for Immigration Studies and the National Border Patrol Council.

“The HIRC is merely implementing the well-worn nativist ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy,” says Devin Burghart. “These moves allow Tancredo, King, Blackburn et al. to continue stoking the nativist fire at the grassroots level with racist rhetoric about the ‘reconquista’ and re-writing the 14th Amendment, while allowing the new face of the HIRC to attempt to appear less toxic inside Congress.”

Burghart noted that HIRC’s strategy appeared to be “taken directly from the FAIR playbook – not surprisingly, given that the new chair is a former FAIR lobbyist who’s vowed to turn the HIRC into a pipeline for the agenda of national nativist groups.”

Over the past two years, there has been substantial growth in the number of local and state anti-immigration groups. However, Potok believes that “The overall anti-immigration movement is not in good shape” at this time.

“Although its message has gotten out in a big way, thanks to the efforts of some in talk radio, cable television and the halls of Congress, the hard-liners are losing their battle, given the Democratic Congress and popular anger at the Bush administration and its war in Iraq. The GOP [Republican Party] is split between its hard right populist and its pro-business wings, and it’s hard to see how those two sides will come together,” he said.

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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