Help wanted, not amnesty
DENVER — When Arizona approved the strictest law in the nation against illegal immigration last year, numerous conservative lawmakers in Colorado clamored to mimic what that neighboring state did.
But when lawmakers in Utah, another conservative state, approved a guest-worker measure last month that tried to address the same issue, not a single Colorado legislator moved to mirror it.
That’s because GOP lawmakers here view Utah’s new law as a form of amnesty, even though officials there say that is far from the case.
A package of measures approved by the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert last month includes a law that allows illegal residents already in the state to stay if they identify themselves and pay a fine.
Under the law, which won’t go into effect until 2013, all those people have to do is pass a criminal history background check and study English. In exchange, they would be granted permits to work in the state.
Conservative lawmakers in Colorado believe illegal immigrants would not do what would be necessary under a similar law because there would be no guarantee the federal government wouldn’t deport them anyway.
“Some people asked if we would be willing to run something like the Utah immigration bill, but my belief is: How many illegals are going to raise their hand and say, ‘Here I am?’ ” said Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs. “The state also has to get a waiver from the federal government that says it’s OK for these people who are here illegally to work in the state. I don’t think the feds are going to give the states waivers.”
Baumgardner was among a handful of conservative lawmakers earlier this year who introduced Arizonalike measures in the Legislature to crack down harder on undocumented workers in Colorado, including giving law enforcement sweeping powers to track down illegal immigrants.
His measure died along with all of the others, some even by committees in the GOP-controlled Colorado House.
Baumgardner said neither he nor any other conservative lawmaker in Colorado likely will try to mimic Utah’s model because they view it as amnesty, something they venomously oppose.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the Utah law already sent a signal to Congress that people on both sides of the political aisle can agree on a solution to the problem. It not only sparked states such as Texas to consider doing the same thing, it generated debate in Washington, D.C., that a solution is possible.
“What’s happening in Utah is another example of why the federal government needs to act now and pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Udall said. “I continue to push my colleagues to find a bipartisan path forward.”
But Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said it makes little sense to encourage even more illegal immigrants to come to the U.S.
Like Baumgardner, King said he understands the mere passage of Utah’s law is furthering the national debate. While he doesn’t agree with the idea, he said, he at least is pleased because it demonstrates that the people urging federal action aren’t just those with extreme views who patrol the nation’s southern border with guns strapped to their belts.
But anything that smacks of amnesty is like giving milk to a stray cat, he said. It will never go away, and it will encourage even more to show up on the doorstep, King said.
“Protecting and securing our borders is such a critical part of what the federal government’s responsibility is, but I question doing the Utah plan. Are you not advocating more of the same?” he said. “I get the part that we have jobs in Colorado of picking peaches or pulling the corn and that there’s a market there. I just wish we could go back 30 years when we had a functional program.”
Colorado or the nation can’t, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should address the issue only with a stick, said Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan.
A few years ago, Looper bucked her own party and got legislative approval of a plan that now is modeled by several states, including Utah. That plan was to create a seasonal-worker program that has the state helping businesses get the migrant workers they need, which includes getting the proper visas that allow them to come legally.
While Looper said she doesn’t agree with Utah’s idea of allowing illegal workers already there to stay, she does think legal migrants should be allowed to get jobs and apply for citizenship at the same time. To see states try to legalize them on their own, though, goes too far, she said.
“I understand why Utah did it, but Colorado shouldn’t follow suit,” Looper said. “It sends the right message, but I question if Congress is ever going to get anything done.”