To listen to U.S. Senate candidates Ken Salazar and Pete Coors, you’d hardly know immigration is an issue in Colorado.
That’s despite the fact that the state ranks 10th nationwide in the number of illegal immigrants.
Or that Colorado last year became the first state in the country to forbid acceptance of Mexican identification cards by state and local governments.
Or that the legislature has twice refused to pass a bill that would give in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.
Yet when Salazar and Coors discuss immigration, it’s almost always in terms of homeland defense and border security. They make passing references to amnesty—both oppose it—before moving quickly on to topics such as taxes and health care.
“These guys are avoiding the whole immigration thing like the plague,” said Mike McGarry of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, a Lakewood-based group that opposes unauthorized immigration to the United States.
When the candidates do discuss the issue, their positions often are “ambiguous,” said Minsun Ji, director of Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores (Humanitarian Workers Center), which helps day laborers, many of them undocumented.
Coors and Salazar, she said, make “broad arguments so that nobody can question them in more detail.”
Coors, a Republican, doesn’t mention the topic at all on his campaign Web site, which has no Spanish-language components.
Salazar’s Web site is translated into Spanish. The Democratic candidate, a fifth-generation descendant of Spanish immigrants, is bilingual.
But while Salazar’s Web site goes on for pages about his positions on health care and the economy, it lumps immigration in with “other issues” such as abortion and gun laws that get only a paragraph apiece.
“Current immigration law is not working,” it says, echoing Salazar’s standard stump statement. “I support stronger border enforcement and efforts that would crack down on illegal human trafficking.”
There’s also a reference to the need to fix the current visa system and “provide an opportunity for some presently undocumented workers to gain legal status.”
Sounds a little like the plan proposed by President George W. Bush back in January, when he said “our immigration laws are not working.”
The president floated a plan for a temporary worker program that would have applied to as many as 10 million undocumented workers already in the United States.
But the plan never went anywhere.
Coloradans on both sides of the immigration issue say it’s frustrating to see the matter largely ignored, given its relevance in the state.
More workers coming
The estimated 144,000 illegal immigrants here in 2000 were more than triple the number a decade earlier.
The population of legal immigrants, most of them from Latin America, also is growing. Last year, 8.6 percent of Colorado’s residents were born outside the country, double the number from a decade earlier but still lower than the national average of 11 percent, according to the Census.
Ji said the number of day laborers seeking work at Centro Humanitario—and of people looking to hire them—is increasing exponentially.
Two years ago, she said, about 100 workers per month were hired at the center. Now the monthly average is closer to 450. Even so, only about 13 percent of those coming to Centro Humanitario find work.
“We’ll never make 100 percent because there are always more workers coming,” Ji said.
Coors and Salazar differ on how to handle that issue.
Coors would impose progressive penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
“When you speed, you get a ticket. When you break the law, there ought to be consequences,” said Coors, who advocates sending undocumented workers back to their countries.
But he proposes a three- to six-month period in which illegal immigrants could register for temporary worker permits. Once that period is over, Coors said, everyone will have to play by the rules and register for such permits before entering the United States.
Coors does not support the so-called DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, which would let undocumented immigrants who grew up in Colorado pay in-state tuition for Colorado colleges and universities.
Kansas has such a law. The easygoing Coors becomes practically apoplectic when he points out that a Colorado student would have to pay out-of-state tuition at, say, Kansas State, while an illegal immigrant would not.
“That’s wrong,” he said. “That just invites abuse of immigration laws.”
State Sen. Val Vigil, D-Thornton, who twice sponsored a similar proposal for Colorado, and twice saw it die in committee, said he still gets angry mail on the issue.
“The only thing they say is, ‘Send those people back; they broke the law.’ . . . They don’t understand that they’re part of our whole economy, and should they all go back, we’d have a huge problem,” Vigil said.
Waiting for the new regime
Salazar would increase the number of visas for foreign workers, partly as a way to stem outsourcing by American companies. He also would institute a guest worker program similar to the one proposed by President Bush.
He’s spoken out in favor of tougher enforcement of human trafficking laws.
“I think it’s despicable,” he said of the practice of smuggling people across the border, a practice rife with abuse. And, he supports the DREAM Act.
“Education is the keystone to everybody’s future,” he said.
Estevan Flores, director of Denver-based Latino/a Policy & Research Center, expects debate on the DREAM Act and other immigration issues to return to prominence after the election.
“Everybody has stepped back from everything,” he said. “Nothing of significance will be decided these last few months. Everyone’s waiting for the new regime to be in place, whatever that might be.”
Where they stand
U.S. Senate candidates’ positions on immigration issues.
• Opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants
• Supports temporary guest- worker program
• Supports in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who grew up in Colorado
• Opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants
• Supports temporary guest-worker program
• Opposes in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who grew up in Colorado.