Colorado Latino lobby day underlines lopsided nature of immigration debate

DENVER– When hundreds of Coloradans flocked to the capitol here Monday for the state’s fifth-annual Latino Advocacy Day, it was a rare recent instance in the state and around the country where support for policies that embrace immigration, U.S. Latino communities and the rights of undocumented residents stole the spotlight from support for policies that set deporting “illegals” and establishing border security as top priorities.

Attendees rallied on the west steps of the capitol and then fanned into lawmaker chambers to talk about the issues that matter most to them this legislative session. Top of the list was opposition to the Arizona-style immigration laws introduced this year, which have mostly failed to gain traction, and support for a bill that would offer in-state college tuition to undocumented students.

“I came here today because I know how much what goes on in this building can affect my life, my family’s life and my friends’ lives,” event speaker Cecelia Rodriguez told the Colorado Independent. “The most pressing and necessary bill we can pass is SB 126, the Colorado ASSET bill, which would make it possible for more graduating [high school] seniors in Colorado to attend colleges here.”

The ASSET bill is the work of Pueblo Democratic Senator Angela Giron, who received a hero’s welcome Monday as she moved through the capitol halls toward a committee room. The crowd cheered and Giron waved and then posed briefly for snapshots with supporters.

A young woman named Laura from Durango came to see Republican Ellen Roberts, her district representative. Laura said she came to relate her experience as an undocumented Colorado high school graduate who now attends university in New Mexico, where she and all undocumented Colorado residents can pay in-state tuition.

Giron and co-sponsor Mike Johnston say the ASSET bill would keep students like Laura in state and so, instead of draining resources, the bill would significantly add to the state’s bleeding higher education coffers. The bill sponsors have estimated that it would translate to roughly 900 more students attending colleges and universities here per year for a net gain of $2 million to $4 million.

Roberts told Laura she was sympathetic but that she couldn’t support the ASSET bill.

“I completely understand what you are talking about but this [bill] doesn’t necessarily cover all of the costs [it would incur],” Roberts said. “The benefit to being a resident is in-state tuition and I know because I moved here and wasn’t a resident at the time and had to wait a certain period of time before I could get in-state tuition.”

Roberts added that she thought immigration policy was a matter best taken up on the federal level.

The unloved Obama plan

The events in Denver came as President Obama unveiled a 2012 budget proposal that would increase funding for immigration enforcement and border security even while it would ratchet down funding for immigration services. Alternet’s Walter Ewing broke down the numbers.

The budget for Customs and Border Protection would rise 3 percent to $11.8 billion; Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding would rise 1 percent to $5.8 billion; and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would dip 5 percent to $2.9 billion.

Lawmakers either criticized the proposal as an inefficient use of resources or lamented its lack of vision.

Pro-immigration policy reform advocates who have been monitoring debate on the topic for years saw a deeper problem with the proposal. The fact that the president would seek to address the country’s inadequate immigration system by emphasizing punishment was as disappointing to them as it was unsurprising.

Messaging matters

At a University of Denver law school forum held last week sponsored in part by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition the ACLU and Amnesty International, speakers lamented the lopsided nature of the current state of the debate, where firebrands on the right were pounding home simple messages that failed to adequately address the complexity of the issue.

DU graduate Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said that there was reason to think the conversation might be at a low point and that it might now start to expand in more productive directions.

“Current debate is at a standstill,” he said. “Policy is being worked out on the fly and on the ground… The good news is that the laws aren’t working and need modernizing and that that’s a point of agreement on all sides.”

He said the failure of the nation’s laws has created a sense of crisis and that, for many reasons, Congress can’t move to address it, creating a political vacuum into which local demagoguery has rushed and been raised onto the national stage.

The prescription offered by leaders of the anti-illegal and/or nativist movement has benefited from clarity, Newman said, clarity on display most dramatically at the Arizona state house but also here at the capitol in Denver and in Washington. The goal is to pass laws that add security and infrastructure along the border with Mexico; that work to remove undocumented residents either forcibly or by creating legal hurdles and hassles that spur them to “self deport”; and that limit the number of foreign-born people who can enter the country.

By comparison, the pro-immigration reform side is burdened by complexity. Leaders agree on establishing a fair path to citizenship for undocumented residents but, beyond that, questions dominate. What sort of path to citizenship? Who should be allowed to immigrate to the county and in what numbers? What level of immigration enforcement is adequate? Should enforcement stop at the border and with federal authorities? What would efficient reliable guest-worker programs look like? What kind of labor laws should govern those programs and how will they be enforced?

Living in Arizona

Attempts to address these questions tend to lead away from demagoguery, said Alfredo Gutierrez, former president of the Arizona State Senate. In the present debate, so many issues are not being talked about in the kind of nitty-gritty way that leads lawmakers to introduce policy that can be implemented and tweaked to solve the problems most Americans agree exist and need to be solved.

“You don’t want to live in a place like Arizona. You don’t want to go down that road,” he said. “What we think of as abhorrent in other parts of the country– neo-Nazis marching to the capitol, racial profiling, prison camps in the desert, laws restricting medical attention for children unless they can produce papers– you don’t want that in Colorado. Hate is contagious.”

He said the dominant reductive security-driven approach to immigration ends in the quest for enemies. It forces us to search for people who are the problem. The problem, however, is not only about the immigrants. It’s a problem with a long history, where U.S. policies over the course of hundreds of years alternately encouraged and discouraged immigration, celebrated our immigrant national culture while also setting up classes of favored and less favored immigrants. It’s a problem complicated by the fact that industry labor requirements have set immigration policy officially and unofficially for almost all of U.S. history.

The anti-immigration forces ask a simple question to which I have a simple response, Gutierrez told the packed law school crowd.

“‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ they say. ‘What part of complicit don’t you understand?’ I say.”

[ Image: Durango Rep. Ellen Roberts on Latino Advocacy Day (J. Boven) ]

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