DENVER (AP) " Citing mounting frustration at a perceived lack of government action, Republicans and Democrats in Colorado separately announced Wednesday they will push to crack down on illegal immigration, setting the stage for what could be a bruising political battle.
A Democrat-led advocacy group, Defend Colorado Now, said it would start gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to deny many government services to illegal immigrants in the state.
Republican legislators outlined a series of bills designed to enlist local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws, punish companies that hire illegal immigrants and require school districts to record students' immigration status.
Several states are working to limit services for illegal immigrants while others appear to be expanding services, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a think tank that supports tighter immigration controls.
"The reason for this is a policy vacuum from Washington," he said. "The states and localities are left holding the bag because the federal government isn't enforcing the law, so they're making decisions all over the map."
Frustration is understandable, but enacting a patchwork of local and state immigration policies before Congress can complete broader, bipartisan legislation does not solve the root problem, said Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza in Washington.
"It's extremely inadequate responses to a very complicated set of problems and it's setting up an environment and conditions that are contrary to what the United States stands for as a nation of immigrants," she said. "Immigrants are not going to decide to go home, they're just going to be driven further underground."
Former Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat who is helping campaign for Defend Colorado Now's proposal, acknowledged that lawmakers already have the authority to deny services to undocumented immigrants. He said the proposal is a largely symbolic effort to show lawmakers that voters want action.
He did not know exactly which services would be cut if the measure passed, saying such questions would be left up to lawmakers.
"This is a referendum on whether or not (illegal immigration) is acceptable to Coloradans," he said.
"We are trying to say, 'Look, folks, this hurts the average Coloradan and this is a drain on your taxpayer dollars,"' said Lamm, who two years ago unsuccessfully ran on an anti-immigration platform for a leadership position in the environmental group Sierra Club.
The Bell Policy Center, a Denver-based liberal think tank, opposes the ballot measure, saying it would cause unneeded suffering without helping solve the underlying problem.
Defend Colorado Now member Waldo Benavidez said the group feels sorry for immigrants trying for a better life, "but this country and this society can only take so many."
"We just need to get control of our borders and let people come in the right way," he said.
State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, a watermelon farmer who said he carefully checks all his employees' immigration status, said he will sponsor a bill to prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving workers' compensation benefits.
"We want to make sure the state of Colorado doesn't become a de facto sanctuary," he said.
Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said state reforms should be designed to mesh with a federal overhaul of immigration policy, but he said state lawmakers will not wait forever for Congress to act.
Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, said Colorado should not provide services to people who are here illegally. He also called for a federal overhaul of the immigration system to allow guest workers who pass a background check.
"The only way you can genuinely reduce illegal immigration is to turn off the magnets that pull people into the United States in the first place," Krikorian said.
Defend Colorado Now originally wanted to put its proposal on the 2004 ballot, but an unsuccessful court challenge delayed its plans.
Fred Elbel, director of the group, said it needs about 68,000 valid signatures of registered voters to get on the ballot.
Associated Press Writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Council of La Raza: http://www.nclr.org
Center for Immigration Studies: http://www.cis.org
Defend Colorado Now: http://www.defendcoloradonow.org