The House Immigration Reform Caucus—not to be confused with a similarly named pro-immigration group—was established in May 1999 by then-Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), a former House member and presidential candidate who promoted a far-right agenda on both domestic and foreign policy while in office. At its peak, the mostly Republican caucus had over 100 members, or a quarter of all House members. In 2012, the caucus claimed to have 93 members.
According to an agenda posted on Tancredo's congressional website, the caucus was founded "to review current immigration policy, to initiate new immigration policy, and to create a much-needed forum in Congress to address both the positive and negative consequences of immigration." The agenda touted the caucus' work in "addressing the explosive growth in illegal immigration, reversing the growth in legal immigration," and opposing various provisions it said would provide "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The statement also promoted the idea, sharply disputed by migration scholars, that irregular migration represents a terrorist threat to the country. "With the events of September 11," it read, "the caucus [has] continued to establish and emphasize the link between open borders, unregulated immigration, and the potential for terrorism."
Tancredo repeated this connection on his 2008 presidential campaign website. In a statement proclaiming a "clash of civilizations" between the United States and its purported enemies, Tancredo claimed that "Tomorrow's attacker is more likely to board a commercial airliner bound for the U.S. with a tourist or student visa—or he may simply walk across our porous southern or northern border carrying a device in his backpack."
When Tancredo left Congress to focus on his presidential bid, he designated Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) to lead the caucus. Under Bilbray, the caucus focused on the purported "relationship between border security, national security, illegal immigration, border violence, contraband and illegal drugs," removing references to the 9/11 attacks and focusing more narrowly on promoting border control and opposing "amnesty" and other government provisions for undocumented immigrants.
Some prominent members of the caucus have continued to link undocumented immigrants to terrorism, often invoking explicitly anti-Islamic rhetoric. A December 2012 blog post by the pro-immigration group Imagine 2050 accused the caucus of "providing representation for the organized Islamophobia movement." It highlighted the role of two high-profile members in particular, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX). The two members were part of a group of five Republican House members to send a letter to U.S. government agencies demanding an investigation into alleged "Muslim Brotherhood infiltration" into the Obama administration. In the ensuing media coverage, Gohmert appeared on the radio show of the controversial neoconservative Frank Gaffney, where he claimed that "the only way you can explain the horrendous decisions that were so completely wrongheaded would be if this administration had a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood members giving them advice." The post also recalled Gohmert's widely ridiculed insistence that undocumented immigrants have "terror babies" in the United States in order to provide U.S. citizenship to their offspring, who can later use their status to wage attacks on the United States.
Bilbray left Congress after losing his 2012 reelection race in a district redrawn to include more Hispanic voters. Imagine 2050 called the result a "major setback" for the caucus, but warned that some caucus members, including incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and others, would be well placed to thwart any potential moves to the center by House Republicans after a 2012 election in which the party was hamstrung by its "hemorrhaging" support among Latino voters.
The Immigration Reform Caucus has been closely linked over the years with immigration restrictionist organizations like NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which Imagine 2050 has deemed a "white nationalist" organization that has "endeavored to eradicate immigration to the United States and to systematically limit civil liberties." Former caucus leader Brian Bilbray himself was previously a registered lobbyist for FAIR and served as a co-chair of the organization's advisory board. Noting the caucus' connections to groups like FAIR and others, a 2007 report by the Center for a New Community characterized the congressional organization as a "highly ideological caucus, with its nativism one piece of a larger far right and ultra-nationalist whole. While not every HIRC member fits this mold," it warned, "enough evidence exists to conclude that more than just the number of H1-B visas is at stake here."