In an interview earlier this week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) admitted that he had adjusted his stance on immigration – “I’ve changed,” he said. There is a reason why the Texas representative’s change of heart is notable: he is the leader of the anti-immigrant movement’s most influential force in the United States legislature: the House Immigration Reform Caucus (HIRC). The caucus is a coalition of House Representatives with numerous ties to anti-immigrant extremists and groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA.
In the past, Rep. Poe and many anti-immigrant members of Congress have persistently pushed for greater border enforcement measures to hinder any possible discussion of immigration reform. On April 11, Poe spoke to Fox News Latino about his new position. “[W]e have to do them in tandem, because [otherwise] we’ll never get to those other issues,” the representative from Texas said. Poe later went on to state he supported granting immigrants legal status and providing a pathway to citizenship.
Rep. Poe was named HIRC Chairman in February after predecessor (and former FAIR lobbyist) Rep. Brian Bilbray lost in a campaign for reelection last November. Poe’s ascent to the top of HIRC came as a surprise to some who thought other immigration hardliners in the House coalition such as Reps. Lou Barletta (R-PA) or Steve King (R-IA) could vie for the caucus’ top spot. While surprising, it wasn’t shocking for Poe to be named. He was previously on HIRC’s Executive Committee and has an established record of anti-immigrant positions and rhetoric. At one point, Poe took to the House floor to discuss border security and compared immigrants to grasshoppers.
Some of Rep. Poe’s colleagues aren’t having a similar change of heart. On Thursday, a group of HIRC members held an invitation-only press event to discuss immigration. The event was led by Rep. Steve King and also featured Reps. Barletta, Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA), and Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). The talking points each representative issued were familiar to anyone with knowledge of the anti-immigrant movement’s latest obstructionist efforts. Rep. Louie Gohmert’s words were perhaps most exemplary of HIRC’s nativist agenda when he expressed concern that immigration was “destroying the fabric of America.”
One notable HIRC absence at the press event was executive committee member Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). He was surely there in spirit, though. NumbersUSA President Roy Beck recently revealed – in an unlisted video on YouTube – that he has recently met with Hunt to discuss reform proposals. In Beck’s words, Rep. Hunt is one of the “champions” in the House who is “revved up” and ready to stop reform.
There now appears to be an ideological divide among members of the caucus that once stood as the most powerful force against immigrant rights in Congress. While Rep. Poe is now denouncing many of the anti-immigrant movement’s positions and talking points, a group of HIRC representatives hold press events to defend them. The question is will Chairman Poe’s new position influence other members of the caucus or will they view him as a “flip-flopper” and actively work to subvert his leadership? Some of the caucus’ more extremist elements such as those attending Thursday’s press event will likely favor the latter, but the future effectiveness of HIRC’s immigration restriction efforts remains to seen. The chairman’s new stance does not bode well for HIRC’s nativist agenda. Having a chairman that is seemingly at odds with the caucus’ other members can only further hamper HIRC as it has seen membership dwindle and anti-immigrant extremism increasingly discredited and pushed to the fringes.
Similar to the recent wave of Congressmen and women “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality, legislators are also modifying their position on immigration. Now that the Gang of 8 have released a 17-page outline ahead of the bill, it will be interesting to observe the longevity of that turnaround. Rep. Poe’s evolution does not signal the end of the HIRC and its anti-immigrant backers’ agenda, but they appear to have lost another soldier in their ongoing war against reform.