While the document isn’t binding and doesn’t propose specific legislation, backers of an agreement on immigration reform unveiled this week say the Colorado Compact could help chart a course out of one of the country’s longstanding policy thickets and might help heal a yawning rift between Hispanic voters and the Republican Party.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, a Republican, and dozens of leaders representing a range of interests around the state — from dairy farmers to clergy members to Bennet’s opponent in the 2010 Senate election, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck — assembled on Sunday at the University of Denver to announce the agreement and sing its praises.
“Nearly 18 months ago, we began a journey to chart a new path on immigration away from the extreme rhetoric, which then engulfed the national conversation,” Bennet said. “We watched as damaging and divisive state laws were proposed and passed around the country and as Washington continued to ignore this issue altogether. We knew that politics playing out on immigration didn’t represent our state, that Coloradans value working together despite our differences.”
Bearing the signatures of more than 100 officials and community leaders, the Compact outlines six broad principles its authors contend should undergird “a more rational and collaborative approach to immigration policy,” including addressing the issue at the federal level, agreeing that immigrants are a crucial element of the economy, and that both local communities and national borders must be protected.
In addition, it states that policies should strive to keep families together, that law enforcement should target “serious crime,” that it should be easy for businesses to “accurately, reliably and affordably” determine who can hold jobs, and that policies should “provide a sensible path forward for immigrants who are here without legal status, are of good character, pay taxes, and are committed to becoming fully participating members of our society and culture.”
Bennet is one of eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — who have been holding informal talks on possible immigration-related legislation, which the Obama administration has said will be a top priority once the new Congress convenes next month.
After the press conference, Buck said that he was fully behind the broad strokes of the bipartisan effort spearheaded by his one-time rival.
“I think it’s really important to get on board, I think it’s a great effort,” Buck told The Colorado Statesman. “We may disagree about the order some of the things happen, but we all agree that we need to take care of this issue. In Weld County, we have a significant portion of the population that lives in the shadows. It affects law enforcement, it affects health care, it affects education. We can’t continue to go on like this.”
During his remarks, Bennet made a similar point.
“While we may not all agree on the policy nuances of reform — in fact, I know we don’t — we know that the status quo is unacceptable and that civil discussion is what will lead to real and lasting reform,” he said, describing hundreds of meetings and thousands of miles traveled to assemble the document. “We came to understand that Colorado couldn’t afford Washington kicking the can down the road on this issue.”
“In the words of the vice president, this is a big deal!” said a smiling Federico Peña, who served three terms as Denver’s mayor and held two Cabinet posts in the Clinton administration. “The reason this is historic is because our immigration laws are controversial, they’re emotional, they’re complex and they’ve been very divisive for so many years.”
Peña continued: “I know for a long time, many people have seen this issue as a Hispanic or Latino issue. The fact that we have this great coalition of people from every walk of life says very simply that this is not a Latino issue, this is an American issue that we as Americans are going to solve.”
Adherence to the Compact’s principles could be good politics, in addition to yielding good policy, one of the authors of a model for Colorado’s agreement told reporters on Wednesday.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of Utah, a Republican, said that his state’s version of the agreement — assembled 18 months ago when rhetoric was “highly charged” — helped head off a radical response to growing public concern over the issue, sparked by neighboring Arizona’s passage of Senate Bill 1070, a measure many saw as an extreme reaction.
Utah Republicans “felt they had to pander to the extreme right wing,” Shurtleff said, as public polling showed 60 percent of his state’s electorate favored Arizona’s aggressive approach, which gave police sweeping powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Conservatives in Utah “had to stick their neck out” by rejecting extreme solutions, he said, but after the state grappled with the issue using its own Compact as a guide, public opinion reversed entirely, with 70 percent now favoring a more balanced approach.
“Of course, every Republican who did that was targeted by the right-wing of their party who threatened to take them out in primaries,” he chuckled. “Those Republicans who did the right thing were all reelected. Every Republican who tried to ride the extreme, anti-immigration fervor was defeated either in conventions or primaries. That’s an important message to send — to do the right thing on this.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat facing a reelection bid in 2014, vowed to work with Bennet in the Senate to find a way to get comprehensive immigration reform enacted.
“I literally think this is second in the queue as far as significantly important national policy to put in place,” he told The Statesman. “This, if you think about the focus on our economy and job creation, is the way to lift a lot of uncertainty. We talk about a lot of uncertainty when it comes to access to capital, but access to labor, access to opportunity are just as important when it comes to creating more jobs.”
By promoting a more “commonsense” approach to the divisive issue, Udall acknowledged, he could be surrendering an advantage Democrats have enjoyed in Colorado, where recent polling shows Hispanic voters opposed to GOP rhetoric on immigration by overwhelming margins.
“I think more and more Republicans understand that this is the right thing to do and, by the way, there could be political opportunity for the Republican Party once they lift this weight off their shoulders of being anti-immigrant. I say this as a Democrat — let’s compete for those voters,” Udall said. “But most importantly, this is about the economy and jobs and acknowledging there are a lot of people in this country that are in the shadows, who are Americans in every way except that they don’t have the right papers. America’s a land of immigrants.”
Udall said that a national DREAM Act — short for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, legislation that proposes to grant permanent residency to certain young foreigners brought to the United States as children — would be “at the top of the list” of his priorities in a comprehensive bill but admitted that the devil would be in the details.
“There are some thorny questions that surround, how do you provide people with a path to legal status and then citizenship, how much support do you provide employers when it comes to their need to prove they’re hiring legal workers. We also have work to keep families together — it just has to be humane and fair.” The goal, he said, should be to keep families together. “It’s easy to say you’re going to do that, but it’s harder when you get down to the actual language.”
As for one question vexing national leaders, Udall said he favors tackling the topic in an omnibus bill rather than creating numerous, isolated targets.
“I think that because there are so many interests and there are so many interlocking parts, although it might seem a little bit more difficult to put a big bill together, initially, I think a big bill works better,” he said. “If you have small bills, then you bring out the opponents, and it’s harder to build a coalition. If you have one interlocking, self-reinforcing bill, I think you build a better coalition.”
Buck proposed the contrary approach but suggested that those battles lay down the road.
“I don’t think it has to be done at once. I have my opinion about what needs to be done first,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to get into those issues right now because I think this is a unifying effort and I think we should stay unified, but I certainly feel that certain things need to happen before others and we’ll see what happens.”