As Democratic politicians across the country were defending President Obama’s controversial new immigration policy, Gov. John Hickenlooper went rogue.
In an interview on the day before Obama’s speech, Hickenlooper not only criticized Obama’s approach to immigration reform, but he also said that many young undocumented Latinos weren’t interested in becoming American citizens.
Hickenlooper’s words rattled much of the Colorado immigrant-rights community, particularly in light of the fact that he was just re-elected with heavy Latino support.
“It’s kind of shocking, what he said,” said Ramon Madera, an Arvada businessman and Mexican immigrant who volunteered this election season urging people to re-elect the governor. “I’ve got to say, when I was making those phone calls, I really didn’t know that’s the way he thinks.”
Hickenlooper told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Obama’s executive action will “be very combustible.”
“What’s amazing to me is, a lot of young Latinos, the vast majority don’t care about a pathway to citizenship,” the governor said. “They want to be able to get on an airplane and get down to Mexico City and visit their grandparents. And they want to get a job and be able to get paid over the table. Why don’t we just take the pathway to citizenship and say, ‘We’re not going to worry about it.’ Let’s have a robust guest worker system where everybody gets five years and we secure the border and we actually hold business accountable if they’re going to pay people under the table.”
Hickenlooper and his staff didn’t respond to inquiries Thursday about his comments.
An election-eve poll by Latinodecisions.com shows Hickenlooper was poised to draw 70 percent of the Latino vote compared to Bob Beauprez’s 28 percent in the Nov. 4th election. Exit polls showed Latinos voting Democratic nationally by a 62-38 margin.
Hans Meyer, a leading immigration attorney in Denver and longtime immigrants’ rights activist, had harsher words about what he called the “deep irony” of Hick’s comments.
“There were so many people in the Latino community who worked to get him elected — so many people in the Latino community who, two weeks after the election, Gov. Hickenlooper appears to have forgotten.
“Gov. Hickenlooper inhabits a different world than most people in the immigrant community. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s just wrong. The vast majority of my clients are willing to do anything that the government asks to be allowed to stay here,” Meyer continued. “Here we have a state governor expressing an opinion about a community he’s not a member of and doesn’t work with on a regular basis about an issue of law about which he appears to know very little.”
Meyer likened Hickenlooper’s comments Wednesday to “the sort of thoughtless quip someone would throw out at a happy hour after a couple of drinks.”
Adrian Naza is a 19-year-old University of Colorado Denver student who is U.S. born, grew up in Aurora and the son of parents who immigrated 25 years ago. Because they’re still undocumented, they’ve lived for years in fear of possible deportation from the country they’ve made their home.
Naza calls Hickenlooper’s take on young Latinos “off the mark.”
“I feel like our communities migrate to different countries for various reasons and our young people — especially those who are undocumented or those like myself whose parents are undocumented — have never gone back to their home country. I’ve never been to Mexico. I’d like to visit, but the United States is my country,” he said.
“It’s painful for me to hear that people think we’re not appreciative. It’s hard to hear that people think we just want to travel back and forth and don’t want to stay here and contribute to this economy and this country. This is the only home I have ever known.”
Of the estimated 4 million immigrants who qualify under Obama’s executive order, about 90,000 people are affected in Colorado, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C. independent think tank tracking immigration worldwide.
Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal blog heralded Hickenlooper for running a campaign based on the economy, not social issues. Immigration wasn’t one of his talking points.
“This isn’t an issue that the governor has weighed in on to a large degree in his time leading Colorado, so his comments in The Journal seemed to be a little bit out of the blue,” said Patty Kupfer of America’s Voice and America’s Voice Education Fund, national immigration reform groups.
Kupfer took umbrage with Hickenlooper’s description of Obama’s executive action as “combustible.”
“Helping millions of people and solving problems in their lives is not combustible, it’s leadership.”
She also dismissed his “dismissal of the pathway to citizenship” – an approach reformers believe is the only lasting solution to a decades-old immigration morass.
“I think he’s misinformed on the actual support that’s out there nationally to a pathway to citizenship. The idea that we have millions of people living in the shadows, don’t speak the language and not participating in our society – that’s not what Americans want,” she said. “We’d like to work with the governor to have him talk with some immigrants in the state, the broader public.”
In the hours before Obama’s speech at 6 p.m. Thursday, Kupfer said she wanted to focus on what she called “an historic victory” and not anything Hickenlooper said.
“The governor’s comments aren’t going to stand in the way of what this night means to millions of people and the deep problems it will solve in their lives.”
The harshest words about Hickenlooper’s comments came Thursday from the Colorado Latino Forum.
“We are so disappointed in John Hickenlooper because the things he said in The Wall Street Journal article weren’t the things he said three weeks ago when he was running for re-election,” said board chair Julie Gonzales. “Immigrant communities for so long and Latino voters have held a pathway to citizenship as a cornerstone, as a marker to determine whether the bills being proposed are meaningful or not. And to see Governor Hickenlooper try to bargain away comprehensive immigration reform’s pathway to citizenship before we even have a bill on the table, I don’t even have words to describe how frustrating that is.”