DENVER – For about a year since he came to the United States, Jose Abrego has worked where he can – restaurants, construction sites, odd jobs.He came from El Salvador without legal documentation, but said Wednesday he still had high hopes and was ready to work. But his landlord has given him 30 days to clear out, apparently concerned about his immigration status, and he feels like an entire country is targeting him.”This is a better country to live in because of the opportunities,” Abrego said in Spanish through an interpreter. “But if citizenship is not an option, then at least let me work, and in five years, I’ll go back. At least I won’t go back with nothing.”
Abrego, who has an 8-year-old daughter and a wife five months’ pregnant, is among those watching developments at the Colorado Legislature with wariness. While details are still being worked out, proposals expected to be addressed next week could put the onus on employers to make sure they aren’t hiring illegal workers under the threat of economic punishment.Immigrant advocates said they are worried about the tone of the debate and the potential disruption to the lives of people like Abrego who have little money, nothing to fall back on and nowhere to go if they are shut out of the work force.Bill Vandenberg, co-executive director of the human rights group Colorado Progressive Coalition, said no real reform can come out of a brief special session in a single state in an election year. He said immigration battles have merely made illegal immigrants political scapegoats and set the stage for partisan politics.
At Denver’s Centro Humanitario Para Los Trabajadores, a nonprofit agency that helps immigrants find work and assimilate, policy director Harold Lasso said the Legislature may wind up hurting everyone – illegal immigrants, corporations and other workers. He said he feared racial profiling and harassment of nonwhites.If American citizens are forced to produce extra documents because of their race just to appease nervous employers, Lasso said, there will be discrimination lawsuits. He also said companies may try to recoup the expense of all the extra work with lower wages and fewer benefits for all workers.Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Colorado is on the right track. He said there is no reason verifying employee status needs to be a burden, and no reason to think illegal immigrants who can’t find work will stay.With states holding employers responsible, the government could update Social Security cards with a computer strip and take similar steps to help employers verify legal status in seconds electronically, he said.
“Department stores verify credit cards hundreds of times a day,” Mehlman said. “Quite frankly, my Blockbuster video card has more protections than a Social Security card.”But even that idea has flaws, according Danielle Short, human rights program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s branch in Denver.Putting pressure on companies to act as enforcers only gives companies power over their employees, power that can lead to exploitation and intimidation, she said.
Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said no matter what happens in the special session, lawmakers can’t forget they are not dealing with numbers or economics. They are dealing with people.”You cannot displace the human person in this,” he said.Vail, Colorado
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