Colo. lawmakers likely to introduce immigration reforms

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Immigrant-rights advocates welcomed a federal judge’s decision last month to temporarily block Arizona’s immigration law. But the ruling appears to have only strengthened the resolve of anti-immigration forces to pass similar legislation in Colorado and elsewhere.

The legislation, blocked by the judge before it could go into effect, would have given law enforcement sweeping new powers to arrest individuals whom they believe to be undocumented immigrants. Appeals were filed immediately after the judge’s July 28 ruling.

If opinion polls are any guide, the law has wide support both in Arizona and throughout the nation, especially among conservatives, with Democrats divided on the issue.

It appears certain that a law mirroring Arizona’s will be introduced by Colorado Republican legislators next year.

“I’ll bet money on it,” said Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs). “There’s huge public support (for such a bill), although we’d have to look at it very carefully from a legal and constitutional standpoint.”

Gardner acknowledged that passage might be difficult, unless Republicans capture both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“It’s a supercharged partisan issue,” he said.

Rep. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) confirmed that he’s working on an “Arizona” bill.

“It’s not finished yet,” he said. “But yes, that’s a pretty good likelihood. We’ll also be looking at some other uses of E-verify.”

E-Verify is a government program that compares information from an employee’s I-9 form to data from U.S. government records.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is also interested in pushing immigration legislation.

“I would do something very similar,” McInnis said on a Denver talk-radio show shortly after Arizona’s legislation was signed by its governor. “(I would say) ‘Federal government, if you are not going to do it, we are going to do it.’”

McGinnis’ Republican rival, Dan Maes, quickly followed suit, as did Republican Senatorial hopefuls Jane Norton and Ken Buck.

Speaking at a recent public forum, both candidates for Sheriff of El Paso County also strongly endorsed the law, and said they believed that states have the right to make their own immigration law.

“The people have spokem,” said incumbent Sheriff Terry Maketa. “If the federal government won’t act, we have to.”

Both Maketa and his Republican primary rival, Monument police chief Jake Shirk, called for the legislature to pass an “Arizona law” during the next session.

The debate here already has echoes of what the nation witnessed in Arizona.

Such a law, if passed, could seriously impact the work of local charities, some say.

“I would be concerned if any part of the proposed legislation would have the effect of denying food to the neediest among us, especially our elders and children,” said Care and Share CEO Deborah Tuck.

At present, some private charitable agencies ask that their clients present identification, while others, such as Care and Share, do not.

The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union noted that “Arizona laws” might affect citizens as well as immigrants.

“The new limitations on acceptable forms of identification documents (create) additional burdens on citizens,” the organization noted in a recent website posting, “including bureaucratic hassles and racial/ethnic profiling.”

On the other hand, Karen Cullen, the Republican candidate for House District 18, which is currently represented by term-limited Democratic Rep. Michael Merrifield, says that she’s been “hearing growling” from Westside residents.

“I’ve been walking the district,” she said, “and there’s a lot of unemployment. One construction worker told me that he’s against illegal immigrants because they’re taking jobs away.”

While declining to take a position on a yet-to-be-drafted Colorado bill, Cullen noted that the Arizona law “pretty much restates federal law.”

“If you don’t have a driver’s license,” she said, “that’s an indication that something might be up.”

Democrat Pete Lee, who’s also running for HD 18, was crisply dismissive of any such legislation.

“Immigration is a responsibility of the federal government,” he said, “and it’s one that they’ve totally defaulted on. We may need a ‘bracero’ program (for seasonal workers), but the federal government needs to control our borders. I sympathize with Arizona, but we’re not in their situation. We don’t have a common border with Mexico and 485,000 illegal immigrants in our state.”

Joe Barrera, a Vietnam veteran and longtime Colorado Springs resident who is now a consultant on U.S.-Mexican border and immigration issues, also thinks Colorado can do without such a law.

“The purpose of the law is to make life (for illegals) so inconvenient and difficult that they’ll leave — and that’s not gonna happen,” Barrera said. “Immigrants are used to living furtively in the shadows. As long as they can make $10 an hour for work that pays $10 a day in Mexico, they’ll come.”

Barrera also noted that Colorado passed a comprehensive package of laws targeting illegal immigration in 2006.

During its regular session that year, the legislature passed nine bills targeting illegal immigration, and passed seven more at a special session called by then-Gov. Bill Owens. The most significant targeted the “coyotes” who cram immigrants into overloaded vans and trucks, and transport them to Colorado. Funding was provided for 12 new state troopers, who would concentrate on stopping such human-trafficking.

“It was a concession to right-wing demagoguery,” said Barrera, “and sprang from Democrats’ fears about re-election. It provides the police with powers to stop suspected human traffickers, but it’s rightly seen as just another way of harassing Mexicans.”

County commissioner Jim Bensberg doesn’t agree.

“We have the most effective immigration laws of any state,” said Bensberg. “I’m not sure we need any new laws — we just need to enforce the ones we have.”