There’s Been No “Immigration Debate,” Only Anti-Mexican Posturing

Respected, longtime political blogger Luis Toro was invited by Colorado Confidential to provide a provocative perspective to our first installment in a recurring series on  immigration. We hope you enjoy his guest editorial and join us in continuing the dialogue on this important, and poorly understood, issue.

This week’s immigration coverage here at Colorado Confidential has put the spotlight on the real people, immigrants and business owners, whose lives are directly affected by what the traditional media in Colorado was pleased to call the “immigration debate” during the last election. 

But discussion of the realities of the immigrant life in Colorado was noticeably absent from this “debate;” instead, what we saw was a debate over whether the Democrats were “tough” enough on immigrants.  Democrats pointed to the laws passed during the special session to prove they were “tough”; Republicans ran TV commercials featuring images of brown men jumping over walls (truly the iconic television image of the 2006 election campaign) with ominous voiceovers telling viewers that Democrats wanted to give Social Security and other government-run services to “illegals.”

I believe that the disconnect between the reality of immigrant oppression and the rhetoric of “toughness” is attributable to race.  Any honest discussion of immigration in Colorado must start with the acknowledgment that negative assessments of the impact of immigration in Colorado are based primarily on racist stereotypes about people of Mexican ancestry, not on facts.  And both Republicans and Democrats are to blame.Advocates of “toughness” on immigration are quick to argue that what they care about is illegality, not immigration itself.  Yet the hero of the anti-immigration movement in Colorado, Rep. Tom Tancredo, has called for a moratorium on legal immigration and describes his crusade against immigration as just part of a larger war against what he calls the “cult of multiculturalism,” which of course would include legal immigrants and citizens who choose not to live up to Tancredo’s idea of assimilation.  And the so-called “immigration debate” has featured calls for English Only laws or bans on the display of foreign flags in schools, even though legal immigrants and U.S. citizens may choose to speak languages other than English or display the flags of other countries.

This summer’s special session of the legislature marked the low point of lawmaking based on anti-Mexican racial hysteria instead of facts.  Actual studies of the effect of immigration in Colorado were (and remain) in short supply; however, a study by the Bell Policy Center released shortly before the special session estimated that undocumented immigrants pay in taxes somewhere between 70 percent and 86 percent of the amounts spent by the state in providing K-12 education and emergency health services to undocumented and their families and in incarcerating undocumented convicts.  (It should be noted here that government services to the less fortunate in our society are typically not evaluated based on whether the recipients can fully fund the services provided to them.) 

Yet the Democratic legislature and Republican governor acted as though the presence of undocumented immigrants in Colorado was a crisis deserving of emergency legislation.  When those laws were passed, Democratic State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald called a press conference at which she bragged to the media about the Democrats’ new status as “the party of ‘tough on immigration.'”

The centerpiece of the special session immigration package was HB-1023, the law requiring persons to prove their “lawful presence” in the United States before receiving services from the government.  It is becoming widely accepted that HB-1023 is, to use the words of the Boulder Daily Camera, an “extraordinary folly.”  However, there is a disturbing trend in the traditional media’s coverage of HB-1023’s failings — with no exceptions that I’ve seen, the evidence used to prove that HB-1023 isn’t working that white Coloradans have been inconvenienced by the law’s provisions.  The Daily Camera editorial focused on the plight of a British immigrant who had to return to the UK to get documents proving her citizenship.  The Greeley Tribune ran an item about an 84-year-old woman (later identified by the Rocky Mountain News as native Coloradan Mary Kelly) who was required to come to City Hall to prove her citizenship in order to receive a rebate for a low flow toilet.  The News also reported that the 16-year-old step-daughter of state Sen. Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs was denied a driver’s license because she was unable to provide proof of citizenship.  To read these reports, one might conclude that HB-1023 would be fine if only there were a way to limit its effect to nonwhite people.  It’s as if there were no undocumented immigrants of European ancestry or, at least, that European undocumented are not the problem the special session laws were intended to address.

But the problems with HB-1023 and the rest of the special session package go far beyond the fact that a few people who, according to popular myth, couldn’t possibly be undocumented immigrants are being inconvenienced by Colorado’s new, “tough” immigration laws.  You could amend HB-1023 so that only people with Spanish surnames or skin darker than a paper bag have to prove “lawful presence” to receive state services, and yet the law will still never have any effect on the flow of undocumented immigration into the state. 

That’s because the rationale for HB-1023 is that what actually attracts undocumented immigrants to Colorado is the prospect of soaking up some cushy state government benefits.  It’s the old racist trope of the “lazy Mexican” coupled with the more recent “welfare queen” and “quota queen” stereotypes of the Reagan era.  It might not be surprising to see the likes of Tom Tancredo, John Andrews and Dick Lamm promoting that sort of legislation, but to see people like Joan Fitz-Gerald, Andrew Romanoff, and Bill Owens sign off on it is truly disappointing.  They all should have known better.

The fundamental problem with the “tough on immigration” approach is that it takes the racially inflammatory attack-ad image of the rapacious Mexican who jumps over a wall in order to live the easy life at taxpayer expense, and declares that to be the real “immigration problem” that must be solved through a dose of “toughness.” 

When people move past the imagery and rhetoric and look at the real facts, as the Bell and Colorado Confidential have done, it becomes clear that instead of “toughness,” what Colorado and the nation as a whole needs is the strength to address the reality that our economy now includes a permanent underclass of workers who lack the basic rights of citizens in a democracy, and the compassion to address the problems of undocumented immigrants, who have become, whether or not all of them can even admit it to themselves, our fellow Americans.

is a veteran Colorado lawyer and ethics rabble-rouser who’s director of Colorado Ethics Watch. His email is

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