- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

The new chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus is targeting freshmen and conservative Democrats as a top priority, telling them if they don’t oppose their party leaders’ push for legalizing illegal aliens, they will lose their newly won majority.

“I think amnesty is the fastest track to minority status for the Democrats,” said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican, who took over the caucus earlier this year and is appealing to Democrats’ self-interest to persuade them to embrace restrictions on immigration, rather than amnesty.

“I reached out to the Democrats, met with them personally and said, ‘I’ll help you,’ ” Mr. Bilbray said during an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “Many Democrats will not survive the next election if they embrace amnesty.”

After eight years under the leadership of Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, who helped make immigration a major national political issue, Mr. Bilbray said he wants to broaden the group’s appeal. He said he sees himself having to fight both parties on the issue, since Republicans want cheap labor for businesses and Democrats think illegal aliens will become Democratic voters when they gain citizenship.

He also said President Bush is taking the wrong approach in negotiating with Democrats on a bill, saying if Mr. Bush expects Republicans to support the war on terrorism, “he ought to be decent enough to talk to us on immigration before he cuts a deal with Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy.”

With Democrats in control of Congress, Mr. Bilbray and his allies know they will need to peel away Democrats to try to defeat whatever bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, decides to put on the floor.

“I just can’t believe Pelosi can be stupid enough to put her freshmen at risk. This could be like the 1993 tax increase,” Mr. Bilbray said, referring to the budget deal many Republicans and Democrats think cost the Democrats their congressional majorities in the 1994 elections.

Mr. Bilbray should know: That’s the year he won a seat in Congress, running against the Democratic incumbent for having voted for those tax increases. He was defeated in 2000, but ran again in June 2006, winning a special election for the seat of disgraced Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in a race that came down almost entirely to the candidates’ stances on illegal immigration.

Having come through that election and then the November 2006 elections, in which Republicans lost their majority in both houses, Mr. Bilbray said voters wanted more enforcement than just the 850 miles of border fencing Congress passed last year. He called he fence “window-dressing if you don’t have interior enforcement.”

Mr. Bilbray said some Republican presidential hopefuls were “broadsided” in Iowa over the immigration issue.

“I think the same will happen in New Hampshire,” he said. “The voters are much more sophisticated about immigration than anyone thinks they are.”

He also said the government needs to take a new look at the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was designed to increase enforcement and give illegal aliens in the country — about 3 million at the time — legal status. He said amnesty was achieved, but enforcement was not.

“We need to go back and do what was not done then,” he said.

Mr. Bilbray said denying jobs to illegal aliens so they end up leaving the country of their own accord is “the only proven solution.” He said he supports a future temporary guest-worker program, but only after the government has proved it can enforce immigration laws both on the border and in the nation’s interior.

The caucus was formed in 1999 and counted more than 100 members before last year’s elections, though the active membership numbered just several dozen lawmakers. While some critics said it was little more than a megaphone for Mr. Tancredo, now a presidential candidate, Mr. Bilbray defended Mr. Tancredo as prophetic in making immigration a national issue.

“He was a voice in the wilderness,” he said. “He did his thing; he did it very well,” Mr. Bilbray said.

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