Colorado lawmakers, left and right, look to lead on immigration reform

Liberal Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and a small group of Colorado’s most conservative state lawmakers share a focus: They are all pushing for immigration policy reform and they all believe that now is the time to act.

Polis told the Colorado Independent during an August recess meeting with some of his Second District constituents that he thought election-year political analysts who are suggesting it’s a good idea to step back from major policy initiatives are misreading the American public.

“The public is speaking overwhelmingly that the time is now to fix our broken immigration system, especially with [sections] of the Arizona law being overturned– that has refocused attention on Washington.” Polis said there is plenty of time to get to work, that Congress will be in session three weeks in September and that there will be a post-election lame-duck special session in November or December.

Meantime in Arizona on Wednesday, lawmaker-members of the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, including hard-line social conservative senators Dave Schultheis of Colorado Springs, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and a number of Republicans running for House seats announced their support for Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigration law and their aim to pass similar legislation in Colorado.

Progressive political bloggers have tagged the move by the Republicans as grandstanding on a hot button topic that will play well in an election season where Colorado Republicans have struggled and where illegal immigration warrior Tom Tancredo has entered the race for governor on the American Constitution Party ticket and is sure to push the debate on immigration up front and to the right in races up and down the ticket.

Already, Colorado has some of the toughest immigration laws in the country. A series of strict statutes passed in 2006 under Gov. Bill Owens, the centerpiece of which denied undocumented immigrants access to taxpayer cash except where the ban would butt up against federal law. In 2007, the Denver Post deemed the new Colorado laws a failure, writing that they had cost the state millions in enforcement and had provided almost no savings in benefits payouts. The law also limited undocumented students’ access to financial aid for higher education.

The laws raised the thorny issue of spending on illegal immigrant children. The idea of letting undocumented children languish without schooling and beginning to work illegally at a young age with no hope of moving into mainstream legal life through no fault of their own seems like bad policy, or at least an absence of policy that works to move potential productive members of society to the fringes and into lawlessness.

Indeed, the matter of undocumented youth seems the most likely area where right and left might be able to come together, and for that reason analysts have suggested it might be a way to begin movement on reform.

In 2009, a “tuition equity” bill was introduced to the Colorado Senate that would have allowed undocumented immigrants who attend at least three years of high school in Colorado and graduate the chance to pay in-state tuition at college. The bill failed after five Democrats joined Republicans to vote against it.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, told the Colorado Independent that a similar bill is “unlikely to be introduced given the current fiscal position of the universities in the state… although I would support it if it did.”

Polis says all of these moves on the state level underline the urgency of federal action. Others agree and have focused on passing the bipartisan Dream Act as a sort bridge or starter immigration legislation.

The Dream Act sets up provisions through which qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a six-year path to citizenship that would require applicants to complete a college degree or two years of military service. Supporters of the act saw hope in remarks on immigration reform made by Pres. Obama in July.

“We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents… The Dream Act would do this, and that’s why I supported this bill as a state legislator and as a U.S. senator and why I continue to support it as president.”

But Polis, who has been an outspoken proponent of federal immigration reform and who in May landed a spot on the House Judiciary Committee, which would likely play a large part in drafting and pushing any coming immigration legislation, believes the Dream Act is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform.

He told the Colorado Independent that the Dream Act would clearly help “a lot of kids who are de facto Americans,” but he added that the American people have signaled that the time for go-slow or incremental approaches to immigration policy reform has long passed.

“I strongly support the Dream Act, and if it can pass alone it’s certainly a good thing, but in no way, shape or form does it fix our broken immigration system.”

Polis said Congress can and should begin working on immigration policy this fall.

“The people of this country on the right, the left and in the middle are demanding congressional action. I think there’s more public will than ever to act now to replace our broken immigration system with one that works– one that enforces our laws and rules, maintains border security, makes sure that people’s [resident status] is verified before they can work and eliminates the ability of people to work here illegally.

“So again, if all Congress can do is pass the Dream Act that’s a good thing but it’s not what people are crying out for. “

Read interviews conducted by the Colorado Independent with young undocumented people in Colorado, who shared their stories and their thoughts on immigration reform.

Additional writing and reporting by John Tomasic

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