A statewide coalition of 39 organizations is looking to take a more active legislative role. That means running defense against GOP attempts to advance the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration, all the while trying to build support for bills that encourage immigrant integration. Read a Q & A with the woman tapped for the job, Amber Tafoya.The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) will announce today the group’s new public policy coordinator, Amber Tafoya.
A native of Pueblo and a 2002 graduate of the University of Colorado’s Law School, Tafoya, 30, previously worked at Colorado Legal Services and then at Catholic Charities’ Center for Immigrant & Community Integration Legal Services office in Pueblo. She was the policy director at the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence before signing on with CIRC.
“We’ve never had a staff member who can break down and analyze policy and build relationships with our legislatures as Amber can,” said Julien Ross, statewide coordinator for CIRC. “So our capacity to improve the lives of immigrants has increased tremendously with her presence.”
With several tough immigration laws from the 2006 special session on the books and more being considered this year, Tafoya has had to hit the ground running. Since beginning her new post earlier this month, Tafoya has set to work creating an updated policy platform for CIRC member organizations. In 2009, the group hopes to begin collaborating with lawmakers to advance legislation to protect the rights of immigrants and all workers.
“Amber brings a more respectful and thoughtful dialogue, and I think that will help heal the wounds of the special session and help legislators better understand the issue,” said Ross. “The voice of immigrants in Colorado will be amplified at the state level.”
Tafoya sat down with Colorado Confidential for an interview, and here’s what she had to say. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
CC: Describe CIRC and what you were brought on to do.
CIRC is the statewide umbrella coalition for an alliance of 39 member organizations — community groups, faith groups, student groups — all who support immigrant rights. We provide opportunities for networking and training. Our role is to help support members as they go out into their own communities and work on creating dialogue about immigrants in the United States and their contributions. We are also coordinating the public policy work for those organizations on immigration-related issues. I was brought on to coordinate the new policy and legislative efforts of the coalition. So we are building the movement from the grassroots base all the way to our elected officials.
CC: How does the nastiness so prominent in the immigration debate affect the work you do?
It’s definitely making our work harder. A lot of what is going on in the immigration debate right now is very hate-filled. So for 2008, we’re calling on people to join our “No Hate in the Debate” campaign, which is a pledge that we will talk about immigration in a civil manner that is solution-oriented. We are building a broad base among different immigrant groups, not just Latino groups, but also African, Asian and Muslim groups. We’re just really struck by the impact this debate is having on people of color in the state of Colorado and how much more difficult it is making everybody’s lives. One of our aims is to show that this is a broader conversation about culture in America. We’d like to help facilitate a place where people no longer feel threatened in the United States.
CC: How do you explain all the hate in the debate?
There are a lot of assumptions that people make about immigration. They oversimplify the fact that the system is completely broken. I don’t think that most people who hear the immigration debate know how hard immigrants work to try and immigrate legally and how much that means to them. Much of the hate comes from misinformation, but for a small group of people, I think it is borne out of hatred and xenophobia. Those people get the upper hand in this issue during hard economic times like what we are now facing in the United States. We’d like to see the debate shift to regarding people as people and seeing beyond their nationality and recognizing that we all have a common vision for the American Dream and that is what binds us together as Americans.
CC: Do you see the movement for immigrant rights as part of a larger struggle?
I think one of the great human rights issues in our world today is people’s mobility and the ability of all people regardless of class, race or gender to be able to travel freely to be able to support their families. This is part of the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the United States signed in the 1940s but now seems not to believe in as ardently as we did after World War II.
CC: The Colorado legislature will consider more immigration-related proposals this session, including bills that would require proof of citizenship to register and photo ID to vote. Another would deny bail to illegal immigrants accused of repeated drunk-driving violations or other serious felonies. What do you think of these measures?
I think the desire to keep us safe and to protect our vote is good. With all the things we have seen around voting machines and voter intimidation during the last election cycle, I think there is some actual evidence of problems with voting, whereas we have not seen evidence of problems with noncitizens voting. So I think it is really important that we focus on where there have actually been demonstrated problems that need a public policy solution rather than a witch hunt that is going to distract people from what is happening to their votes. Scapegoating the immigrants is not the way to go. Immigrants know they cannot vote until they are U.S. citizens — that’s why we have record numbers of people who are applying for citizenship now.
In terms of public safety, these anti-immigrant measures are actually making us less safe because they are creating distrust and fear within the immigrant community, and people are not reporting serious crimes. It is also making immigrants targets for crime. As far as denying bail to people who are unlawfully present, it’s a targeted measure at a very small percentage of the population. A fairer solution would be — if these crimes are really serious and the legislature deems them public-safety emergencies — then bail ought to be denied for everyone who gets arrested on these charges. It should go across the board and focus on the crime rather than who is committing it. Justice should be blind in the United States.
CC: If you could address all Coloradans on the subject of immigration, what would you tell them?
I would try to quash the myth that immigrants are just not getting in line -they could do it the legal way and they are not. The reality is the immigration system, in Congress’ words, is more complicated than the tax system, and we all know it’s broken. So this insistence on penalizing people who can’t get through a broken system is very disturbing. The average wait time for a lawful permanent resident who is applying for his wife and kids to come to the U.S. is right now between 10 and 12 years. It goes against our principles of family in the United States to ask people who are here legally to be separated from their families for over a decade. We need to have a system that is legal and fair and relatively efficient in allowing people to come to the United States, because that same wait time, if the person is from Europe, is three to four years. So there is a lot of inequity in our immigration system.
I would like to challenge people to take a deep look at what it takes to immigrate. If you need workers to come to the United States to work in your restaurant, could you do that? No, because there is no visa for unskilled workers that lasts beyond 10 months, and there are only 65,000 for the whole country in non-agriculture and 65,000 in agriculture. It’s a matter of challenging people to get the facts on immigration and to realize people’s humanity, that’s the other thing. I would like to bring people back into the debate. We’re talking about people, about families, about kids, and the debate has become really dehumanized.
CC: Can you talk about what attracted you to the immigrant rights movement?
The passion in my heart is working with immigrant families because it is an area that is quite personal for me. I went to law school with the idea that I would return to my home community and do something impactful. I grew up in a family that is Latino but always had a lot of shame around being Latino. My grandparents were young people in an age where signs on the shop fronts in southern Colorado said, “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.” And I fear that’s where this debate is going. So it’s from my own sense of history and my own family’s experience that I feel a need to fight xenophobia and fight any kind of policy that would dehumanize people on the basis of race.