Immigration reform is a key issue in Colorado elections, where 14 percent of the voting population is Hispanic and where 70 percent of voters overall support reform. Protests in favor of immigration reform, or of at least staying deportations, have become near-weekly fixtures of the state’s tight political races.
The issue’s particularly gnarly for Republican Congressman Cory Gardner. Like immigration reform itself, Gardner is navigating the limbo between House and Senate — he’s in a breakneck race against Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Udall, who voted for the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform package last year.
In early June, as immigration negotiations fell apart in the House, Gardner had a full house back in Greeley, Colo., where protesters flooded his office demanding that he call Speaker John Boehner and ask that they consider immigration reform on the House floor this year. The day before that protest, The United Farm Workers had announced that they spoke with Gardner and he had told them he wouldn’t pressure the speaker on the issue.
That first protest, which was followed by another of some 70 people, may have moved Gardner on the issue. By the last week of June he was telling protesters, “I will continue my efforts to convince Speaker Boehner and the rest of the House to bring immigration reform legislation to the floor.”
It’s difficult to know exactly what kind of immigration reform Gardner would get behind, as his votes are mostly on the “no” side of various measures. As has been pointed out in other areas of Gardner’s political history, he’s moved from being a state legislator representing rural, Republican Colorado to a Congressman representing a broader swath of rural, still largely Republican Colorado. Now that Gardner’s running to represent the entire state as senator, it appears he’s adopting a more moderate voice on key issues.
In April, politico and radio personality Ross Kaminsky attended a semi-private discussion session amongst high-level Republicans who were brainstorming how to, as Gardner has described it, put some chairs in that big GOP tent for both women and Latinos. Gardner is supposedly at the heart of these conversations and by Kaminsky’s report the Congressman appears to have a nuanced grasp of the way the nation’s broken immigration system might, for example, prevent a hardworking rural student from attending college, even if she is the brightest kid in her class.
However, when it comes to immigration, Gardner has a hard-right legislative history — detailed in the timeline below. It’s a position that so far seems fairly consistent for Gardner, as his current Congressional website touts border and benefit security at the top of his immigration reform to-do list.
“The solution to the problem … isn’t giving amnesty to the 12-20 million illegal immigrants in this country, or giving those people benefits that will only encourage more illegal immigration,” reads the section of Gardner’s official website devoted to immigration. “I will support legislation that ensures employers only hire people who are here legally and that guest workers are here temporarily.”
Yet, Gardner openly opposed the immigration standards put forward by Republican leadership this January which said essentially: border security must come first, employment verification must be updated and used, and even immigrants granted legal status should not be eligible for public benefits.
It’s possible Gardner opposed the Republican immigration standards because they would create a path to citizenship for immigrants brought into the country as children and a path to legal residency for many of those here already. As the New York Times reported in March, “[Gardner] has opposed the deportation stay for young people and objects to the Senate’s path to citizenship as amnesty.”
Neither Gardner’s Congressional nor his campaign office returned calls requesting information about his role in encouraging the House to take up immigration reform this year, or details about his current stance on that reform. Gardner’s recent moves — taking part in platform brainstorming on immigration and promising to push the issue in response to protesters– don’t add up to a full-fledged policy change, but they inch him away from his past positions.
Gardner has already announced a change of heart on personhood — the pro-life standpoint which holds that life begins both morally and legally at conception, outlawing some common forms of birth control. The move is a savvy one in a state that has twice rejected personhood amendments by a ratio of about two-to-one, but Udall’s campaign has refused to let the flip stick, particularly because Gardner is still sponsoring a federal personhood bill in the House.
Michele Soli at Colorado-based immigration reform group Rights for All People said many candidates have a somewhat blurry stance on immigration reform right now, but voters are watching and want concrete answers.
“It’s important that candidates in every race come out with a strong stance on immigration,” she said. “Whatever that stance is, they need to be clear, because that’s an issue people will decide their votes on.”
A brief timeline of Cory Gardner’s stance on immigration:
[Protestors before Aurora, Colorado’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, photo by Justin Valas]