Bennet, immigration panel discusses cross-border reforms at CELL event

Democrats and Republicans are frustrated over the issue
The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet joined a panel of immigration policy experts Tuesday evening to discuss cross-border reform. The discussion was hosted by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab and moderated by former Gov. Bill Ritter.

Bennet, a Democrat, expressed his frustration with a U.S. House that has failed to move forward a proposal he spearheaded for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

Bennet was part of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that brought the legislation forward. It passed the Senate, but has been stalled by political gridlock in the House.

The Senate version included a compromise 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. Senator Michael Bennet, fourth from left, contemplates the contentious subject of immigration policy at The CELL’s debate Feb. 18. Former Gov. Bill Ritter, Jr., who moderated the event, sits at the far right. Other panelists are, from left, the Hon. Marcy Grossman, the Consul General of Canada in Denver, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, and Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

But despite the careful negotiating by Bennet and his fellow Gang of Eight members, the Republican-controlled House has indicated that including a path to citizenship is a nonstarter without more border security. House Republican leaders have said that border security measures must be in place before a path to citizenship can begin.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter and Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen.

Even more woeful for the reform package, House Speaker John Boehner said earlier this month that Republicans do not trust President Barack Obama to successfully enforce any new immigration law, suggesting that even piecemeal reform measures won’t pass through Congress this year. Their concerns come despite Obama having overseen a record number of deportations.

JJ Sullivan, U.S Sen. Michael Bennet and Jim Sullivan enjoy the reception before the debate on immigration policy at the Denver Art Museum on Feb. 18.

“The pathway to citizenship was not controversial at all in the Gang of Eight,” Bennet explained to a sold out audience at the Denver Art Museum. “The four Republicans and the four Democrats that were part of that from the very outset… all of us agreed that we didn’t want to have a permanent subclass of people living in the United States.”

Larry Mizel makes introductory remarks before the start of The CELL’s debate on immigration policy. Seated are panel participants Marcy Grossman, consul general of Canada in Denver, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, and Linda Chavez, the chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

Bennet called his work on immigration reform the highlight of his time in Congress thus far, though he has been less thrilled with the outcome of his labor. He doesn’t understand why Republicans are holding up the bill considering it includes $46 billion to nearly double border security efforts.

Richard King Brown, state Rep. and U.S. Senate candidate Amy Stephens, and Monica Owens pose during the pre-event cocktail party.

Bennet’s explanation is that the “blood sport” of Washington politics clearly outweighs the sensibility of immigration reform.

Carol Mizel and Shereen Pollak.

But he remains hopeful that Republicans will acknowledge the groundswell of support for providing a path to citizenship through tough mandates, especially as the Latino vote becomes increasingly more important to Republican candidates.

David Engleberg, Norm Brownstein and Rick Brown.

“We may not get it done right now… but I think it is inevitable that it’s going to happen,” opined Bennet.

Gabriela Cornejo-Vidal and Bill Vidal.

It’s not only Democrats who are frustrated by the lack of progress. Conservative Republican Attorney General John Suthers sees the issue as a matter of safety. Suthers joined the panel discussion, replacing former U.S. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who was unable to attend the discussion because of a flight cancellation.

Dean Singleton and The CELL founder Larry Mizel.

“From a law enforcement perspective, our current immigration system is really broken,” surmised Suthers.

Melanie Pearlman, executive director of The CELL, welcomes guests to the event at the Denver Art Museum on Feb. 18.
Photos by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

He pointed out that without comprehensive reform, there is no way to properly track immigrants, including who is permitted to be in the country and who is not.

“The fact of the matter is that law enforcement had very little capability of figuring out… who the bad guys were and who the good guys were…” Suthers explained. “If we knew who these people were, it would be a heck of a lot easier to filter out the people who aren’t supposed to be here. It really is a highly dysfunctional system.

“I’m a conservative Republican and I can argue to you why having people in the country having come here illegally should not be rewarded by citizenship… But from a law enforcement perspective, there’s no question… the system is very broken,” he added.

Linda Chavez agreed with her fellow Republican. Having served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, she is no stranger to conservatism. She was also the first Latina nominated for a U.S. cabinet position.

But Chavez, the chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, believes conservatives have adopted flawed messaging when it comes to the immigration debate.

“I’m not a fan of Barack Obama… but Barack Obama, when it comes to border enforcement, he has deported more people who are here illegally than any president in U.S. history,” Chavez pointed out.

“What is frustrating to me is that the single best and most successful way to secure our borders is not to build higher fences, it’s not to put more technology out there, it’s to create a legal way for people to come,” she added.

The other component to the immigration discussion beyond security is economic development. Marcy Grossman, the consul general of Canada in Denver, explained that Canada has encouraged immigration to compete in a global economy.

“Our immigration system almost always puts a filter on economic immigration… in order to attract the best and the brightest to Canada,” explained Grossman.

She said that Canada views immigrants, especially international students, as a boost to its economy and a means to compete globally. It is one of the reasons that Canada is buying land in Detroit for a new international trade crossing, despite U.S. delays, said Grossman.

“We’re going to build a bridge because the trade between Canada and the U.S.… is so important to us,” she said.

Bennet applauds Canada’s strategy, suggesting that if the U.S. does not follow its neighbor’s lead, then the country will stumble in the global economy.

“We’re competing against Canada,” implored Bennet. “They’re going to have 450,000 students that they’re going to get into their higher education system, and they’re going to keep them in Canada.

“In the meantime, we’re educating people here and then we’re saying to them… please go back to India and China as fast as you can to compete against the United States of America,” he continued.

Ritter, who worked with federal officials to implement Secure Communities in Colorado, believes immigration is one of the most important issues facing the nation.

Secure Communities uses federal databases to identify criminal aliens. But Ritter believes there will be less criminal immigrants in the nation if Congress simply addressed the root issues. He said citizens are already making it a priority.

“I do think the people of Colorado have a lot to say on this and care a great deal about it, and the most important thing is to communicate to those people who you elect to federal office, give them your sentiments about this…” said Ritter. “This is an issue that needs resolving.”