Colo. lawmakers launch debate over immigration |

Colo. lawmakers launch debate over immigration

Steven K. Paulson
Associated Press

DENVER – A bipartisan focus on jobs and the economy – and Democrats’ control of the Senate and governor’s office – may quickly doom an early effort by Colorado’s Republican Senate caucus to enact an Arizona-style immigration law this year.

Illegal immigration is a key part of the Senate caucus agenda – but it isn’t shared by their colleagues in the Republican-controlled House, where House Speaker Frank McNulty insists the party is most concerned with jobs.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has vowed to veto any law similar to Arizona’s, saying immigration is a federal responsibility. Democratic lawmakers say the divisive issue must take a back seat to creating jobs.

“Some of the other things that are coming forward, whether it’s the Arizona-style immigration legislation or otherwise, I think that those are social wedge issues that are designed to distract us from our real focus,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer.

Shaffer has sent the GOP bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee, where it is likely to die.

That doesn’t deter Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp. “We campaigned on those issues and now that we’ve been elected, we’ll pursue it,” Kopp said.

The caucus bill would allow police officers to arrest anyone they suspect may be an illegal immigrant. It does not include a divisive element of Arizona’s law that has been put on hold by a court: requiring immigrants to carry immigration registration papers.

Senate Republicans also want to compel employers to verify workers’ immigration status as well as meaningful enforcement of existing state immigration laws.

State estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in Colorado range from 225,000 to 500,000. Republicans claim they cost state taxpayers $1.2 billion a year for public education, corrections, mandatory translation services and other costs, based on estimates from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative watchdog group.

Julien Ross, director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said an Arizona-style law would devastate Colorado’s economy. Ross said the Arizona hospitality industry alone has lost more than $253 million in revenue since the law went into effect last year.

Colorado passed some of the nation’s toughest state immigration laws during a 2006 special session with Democrats in the majority. One law requires police agencies to report to immigration officials anyone they arrest whom they suspect may be in the country illegally. It’s up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine what to do with those reports.

Don Christensen, director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said his group opposed previous GOP legislation that would have required authorities to arrest illegal immigrants because sheriffs don’t want to enforce federal law and cherish discretion when deciding whether to make an arrest.

The sheriffs’ association did support former Gov. Bill Ritter’s decision to enlist Colorado in the rapidly expanding Secure Communities program run by ICE. Fingerprints obtained during jail bookings are used to determine a person’s immigration status and any previous arrests. Hickenlooper also supports the program, which operates in 35 states. ICE hopes it is universal by 2013.

Hickenlooper said during his campaign that changes to immigration law must be a federal effort.

This session, Democratic lawmakers will first support bills that help the economy, Shaffer said. Some Senate Democrats want to allow illegal immigrants who’ve graduated from state high schools to pay in-state tuition at public universities – a way, they say, to support Colorado’s financially struggling colleges. That proposal, however, would face a stern test in the GOP-controlled House.

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