Immigration issue splits delegation

Republicans in Colorado’s congressional delegation insist on border security first

A coalition of Democrats, immigrant rights supporters and business leaders are calling on the four Republican members of the Colorado House congressional delegation to buck politics and support a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes a path to citizenship.

But the Republicans seem unwilling to budge, saying they will not support U.S. Senate legislation that passed on June 27 by a vote of 68-32. The measure passed the Senate with the support of all Democrats and 14 Republicans.

Despite a compromise that included conferring legal status on millions of undocumented immigrants while strengthening border security and tightening employment rules through an electronic system to verify residential status, known as e-verify, U.S. House Republicans are less enthusiastic.

Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar implies that since he’s back in civilian clothes, he can speak his mind more freely than U.S. Senators Mark Udall, left, and Michael Bennet, right.

Republican House leadership has stated that there will not be a vote on a bill unless it requires that border security measures be in place before a path to citizenship can begin. House GOP leaders believe the Senate version is weak without so-called “triggers,” in which security measures must be met before a path to legal status can even be sought.

Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough voices her support for the immigration reform bill.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has already declared that immigration reform will not come to a vote without the support of the majority of the House GOP caucus. Colorado’s Republican House delegation appears supportive of their leader.

South Metro Denver Chamber’s Norman Stucker introduces U.S. Senator Michael Bennet to Manoj Mahenderan.

“The issue is one of fairness and respect for the law. Politics should have nothing to do with how we approach the issue of immigration reform. I will not support the Senate bill, or any bill, that allows individuals who have broken our laws to go to the front of the line or get preferential treatment in seeking citizenship,” U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs said in a statement e-mailed to The Colorado Statesman.

President and CEO of South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce John Brackney says that passage of the immigration bill makes perfect sense.

“As far as I am concerned, the Senate immigration bill is a nonstarter in the House. I don’t care how many Senators voted for or against it. It is too flawed and relies too heavily upon an unacceptable degree of promises. As you know, Congress, and the Obama Administration are not good at keeping promises,” Lamborn continued.

Communications Director/PIO Carolyn Tyler in Attorney General John Suthers’ office reads portions of a letter from AG Suthers.
Photos by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Lamborn, similar to many House Republicans, would rather see smaller piecemeal reforms that focus on strengthening the nation’s guest-worker program. But he says those residents should maintain citizenship in their home country. Lamborn is also supportive of increased border security, while allowing local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner of Yuma had a similar thought: “I support immigration reform that puts border security and enforcement first,” he said in a statement to The Statesman.

“Only once we have tackled those issues, and knowing the reforms actually work, can we achieve a long-term fix to our immigration system,” Gardner continued. “I am committed to making our country and our economy stronger through immigration reform, but do not believe the Senate bill is the best way forward.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora is also concerned with the Senate proposal, agreeing with his Republican colleagues that border security is the most crucial component.

Coffman says the Senate bill does not go far enough, and he does not trust that the promises made in the legislation would be kept. He points to immigration reform in 1986 under Republican President Ronald Reagan. The measure also sought to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, while strengthening laws against illegal immigration.

“I appreciate the effort that my colleagues in the Senate have made in trying to fix a badly broken immigration system, but I’m still concerned because promises made out of the 1986 immigration reform bill on enforcement and border security were not promises kept,” said Coffman. “I will work for solutions in the House that will provide for the reforms necessary to not only secure our border, but to verify that they remain secure.”

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez said the congressman also expects the House to advance its own measure that focuses on security. Republican House leadership is expected to meet on July 10 to discuss a proposal.

“The immigration discussion is still at the early stages, and the House is going to be putting forward a plan of its own. Regardless of the vehicle for immigration reform, Congressman Tipton believes that it is important that as Congress works on reform it does so in a way that ensures the problems facing the current system are permanently fixed so this nation doesn’t end up here again in 20 years,” said Tipton’s spokesman, Josh Green. “In order to accomplish that, Congressman Tipton believes that verifiable border security must be the first step and that reform legislation should also include a strengthened guest-worker program.”

GOP attacked for resistance

The Republicans’ resistance baffles immigrant rights supporters. Julien Ross, executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, pointed out that the Latino voting bloc is growing and becoming increasingly important to Republicans.

“It’s good politics,” opined Ross. “Every statewide race — the last two governors, the last two U.S. Senate, president — has all been pro-immigration reform candidates. It’s good politics. It’s good policy.”

Ezekial Ramirez, who voted for the first time in 2012, reminded the GOP that his generation is taking to the polls, and Latinos sympathetic to the plight of their undocumented brethrens dominate much of it.

“I have mixed statuses in my own family, but I am here to vote for them and for my community,” he said on Tuesday outside the Denver Republican Party headquarters in Cherry Creek. “I know what it takes to get people involved, and let me tell you, I am ready to take action this year and next year to make sure politicians everywhere understand the political power that we have.”

Many Republicans agree with the immigrant rights supporters. The issue has long split the GOP, with business interests often clashing with party perspectives.

The Senate bill itself was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of eight legislators — called the “Gang of Eight” — that included Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. John Brackney, a Republican and president and chief executive of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, joined an event Sunday at the University of Denver, which was organized by Democrats, to state his support for immigration reform.

“Whether you look at it in a small business sense, a large business sense or a human business sense, or to benefit America, this is the right issue to get behind, and we’ve got to get our Republican friends on board,” stated Brackney. “I’m a former elected Republican from Arapahoe County, and I’m telling you we have to get the Republicans on board. There’s plenty to fight about in America, let’s fight about other things and get this done.”

Kelly Brough, president and chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, agreed, suggesting that the issue does not need to be political.

“There was one lens for all of us and that lens was the economic future of Colorado, and it drove us to these solutions, and even at the Denver Metro Chamber we said there are certain things that must be in immigration reform, and every one of those things is in the bill that is before Congress right now,” said Brough.

Also attending the event was a representative from Republican Attorney General John Suthers’ office, which is also supporting the reform effort. Suthers wrote a letter that was read on Sunday. He approached the issue from a law enforcement standpoint.

“The bottom line is that law enforcement needs to know who is in the country in order to do its job of identifying the bad guys and holding them accountable,” read Suthers’ letter. “Our current system is dysfunctional in this regard.”

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office organized the event on Sunday. Bennet was part of the Gang of Eight that spearheaded the reform measure. The goal of the event was to encourage the Colorado House congressional delegation to urge a vote on the bill.

But no members of the congressional delegation were at the event. Bennet’s office said they had spoken with several members of the delegation, but that House members are focused on their own events now that the debate has reached that chamber.

Bennet said afterwards that he expects there to be an outreach effort that will impact how the House proceeds.

“There’s going to be incredible outreach from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and much more importantly, I think they’re not just going to hear from members of the Senate, but also from constituents and all voters of the country about how important this bill is to get done,” attested the junior senator.

Democratic Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall was also in attendance on Sunday. He encouraged applying pressure on the House.

“We’re going to work with the House in every way possible,” he promised. “We’re going to cajole, urge, we’re going to plead, we may have to threaten just a little bit, but the House can do this,” said Udall.

President Barack Obama has also urged lawmakers to make the issue a priority. The president has said immigration reform is a critical component to his second-term agenda.

But without House Republican support, the bill is doomed, and the president will never see the version supported by immigrant rights supporters and Democrats.

One of Obama’s former cabinet members, recently retired Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, was not shy Sunday about applying the full-court press. Salazar, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, is opening a law firm in Denver and is no longer concerned with politics, he said before offering a fiery demand.

“There are four people who need to stand up,” Salazar remarked of Colorado’s four Republican House members. “And you look at the Republicans and Democrats behind us, and as Michael said, ‘This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, this is an American issue. And therefore we need to have Coffman, Tipton Gardner and Lamborn coming on board…

“I’m going to put it this way,” Salazar continued. “Coffman should have courage, that’s what the ‘C’ should stand for. Tipton should recognize the talent of the young people of the Third Congressional District, of the talent needed in agriculture… Gardner, because of the ‘G,’ should have some guts and stand with the dairy industry, the Colorado Farm Bureau and all the rest of you to get it passed for that congressional district. And Lamborn, from that place we know as El Paso County in Colorado Springs, should look up at the faith that that community professes to espouse and join the faith leaders of America and say that this is the right thing to do because it reflects the highest moral values of the American people.”

See the July 5th print edition for full photo coverage

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