Immigration crowd upstages VIPs

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

NORTHGLENN — In Colorado, nothing can attract a crowd quite like a discussion of immigration reform.

Last Saturday afternoon, men, women and children poured into the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Northglenn, filling it past its seating capacity, waving signs and flags and chanting “Si,se puede!” (loosely translated as “Yes, we can!”).

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, speaks with two young boys who were not identified by organizers before the immigration rally in Northglenn on Saturday. Polis, who is
fluent in Spanish was overheard telling the boys, who both spoke at the event, to not be nervous and to be themselves.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

They had come for the metro-area edition of the touring Familias Unidas Immigration Hearings, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, of Illinois, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Task Force. Jared Polis, a first-termer representing Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, had invited Gutierrez to bring the tour to Colorado.

The two Democratic congressmen were joined on the altar by Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput for the two-hour town hall forum.

The headliners, however, were badly upstaged by members of the audience, who told their stories eloquently, vociferously demonstrated their support for federal immigration reform and demanded a legal pathway to legalization for the nearly 15 million undocumented immigrants in America today.

“Politicians use this issue for rhetoric and for their own personal gain,” Polis told The Colorado Statesman before the event. “We have to step up and demand that we see an end to that rhetoric and, instead, that we see action.”

Polis said he believes Washington lawmakers need to legislate immigration reform to allow hardworking immigrants to be able to contribute to American society and pay taxes. He also said the United States needs to devise a better path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants who are already here and for those who want to immigrate legally and that improving enforcement of immigration is a vital part of any solution.

President Barack Obama recently said he supports taking a look at immigration reform, including the path to citizenship, and bipartisan committees are currently crafting legislation that could be introduced later this year.

Rep. Jim Reisberg, D-Greeley, speaks with Ociel Guzman about immigration reform while a woman who asked not to be identified listens.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

But solutions won’t be easy. Opponents of immigration reform say legalizing 15 million undocumented immigrants could lead to overpopulation in some areas of the country, lower wages for American workers and create overwhelming problems for the nation’s social services departments.

None of those concerns, however, seemed to dampen the spirits of the nearly 1,000 people who attended Saturday’s event.

The Northglenn leg of the Familias Unidas tour, which is making 22 nationwide stops in an effort to bring political and religious leaders together to push for comprehensive immigration reform, featured nearly a dozen speakers, including children and parents struggling under the country’s current laws.

One 12-year-old — who was deliberately not identified because his family is in the United States illegally — tearfully gave his account of the day he came home from school to learn that his father had been taken away by federal agents for immigration violations.

Jose Rivas, who immigrated to America in 1969, speaks about his family in El Salvador while his 8-year-old daughter, Anaid, looks out at the crowd.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

Another town-hall participant, Jose Rivas, spoke about the life he has afforded his children in America despite the fact that his parents came here decades ago from El Salvador as undocumented immigrants.

“If anyone doubts that immigration is an issue, I would invite them to come here and listen to one of these stories, to 30 of these stories, to 1,000 of these stories,” Polis said to a rousing applause line. “Americans from across the ideological spectrum are outraged that we have 15 million people here working undocumented. This issue has been used as a divisive political wedge playing to the worst fears of this country.”

Chaput, who spoke briefly after offering a prayer to the group, said he believes it is time for the nation to adopt sensible immigration laws and pointed the finger at both parties for their inability to push politics out of the picture.

“Immigration reform in this country has been gridlocked for more than three years, and both Democrats and Republicans have created that paralysis,” Chaput said. “We made our immigration crisis in a bipartisan way. Now we need to solve it in a bipartisan way that involves good people from both parties — or no party — and people who may have very different convictions.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput gazes out at the
crowd before the rally begins.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

Chaput also pointed out the many differences he and Polis have on fundamental social and governmental issues before saying that he supports Polis’ call to action on immigration reform.

“I’m pretty confident that Congressman Polis and I would agree that we disagree — vigorously — on some very serious social issues,” he continued. “But those issues aren’t on the agenda today. What’s on the agenda today is finding a way to make our immigration laws better. We have a mutual interest in that important work. And I respect the congressman’s sincerity and energy in trying to do something about it.”

Some Statehouse lawmakers were on hand for the event as well, including Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley.

The legislative veteran said he had wanted to be present at the event to hear from people who are affected directly by immigration laws and to get a better understanding of an issue that has significant impact on his district. He also said he was interested in learning if the state government can do anything to help the situation.

The answer, he conceded, might be that it can’t do much — if anything.

“The special session of 2006 (called by former Gov. Bill Owens) on immigration proved that (reform) cannot be done only at a statewide level,” Riesberg told The Colorado Statesman before the event. “An important aspect of this for Colorado is not only the number of undocumented workers who are living here but also the lack of knowledge that people in the state have of the process.”

Riesberg said few residents make an effort to learn about the intricacies of the immigration system or the difficulty of reform before passing judgment on the immigrants themselves.

“Definitely, the debate should be around human values, around moral values, around fair and honest treatment of individuals and on cultural understanding,” he said. “When we talk about those issues, all of this other stuff shouldn’t get in the way.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com