Colorado delegation remains deeply divided on immigration reform
By Allison Sherry
August 4, 2013
As Congress heads home for a five-week summer break, the evolving and contrasting views of Colorado's seven House members on comprehensive immigration reform illustrate why an overhaul may be an impossible feat in this Congress.
Three of the four Republicans — Reps. Cory Gardner, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton — are noncommittal about supporting a path to citizenship or legal status for those who are here illegally, including the children they have brought with them, the so-called DREAMers.
The three prefer, instead, taking on immigration in bite-size chunks that could take years to accomplish: independently certified border security first, then perhaps the build-out of a guest worker program.
And Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican in the political fight of his life, has lengthy and pricey qualifications to his pledge to bring a comprehensive immigration bill that includes legal status for the 11 million people who are here illegally.
Then there are the three Democrats, all of whom are pushing for a plan that includes a way for those here illegally, but who otherwise are following the laws, to become citizens.
Two of them, Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette, say they have little appetite for the piecemeal approach endorsed by Republican leadership.
What does this portend for the next five weeks?
Fireworks, according to immigrant-rights advocates who are already preparing an August onslaught in Colorado's four Republican-led Congressional districts to try to get them to change their minds.
Coffman is at the top of their list. He faces one of the most competitive races in the country next year to keep his seat thanks, in part, to a new district composed of 20 percent Latinos. Previously the third-term congressman had opposed any pathway to citizenship or the so-called Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. But he now says his new district has inspired him to evolve his views on immigration.
At a meeting on July 28 at the St. Pius X Catholic Parish in Aurora, in front of hundreds of constituents, Coffman read — in Spanish — a speech that called for a pathway to citizenship following a long list of qualifications that included first achieving certified border security.
But when pressed by immigrant advocates, the congressman answered "yes" to questions about whether he would work to pressure House leadership to bring a comprehensive immigration bill — with a path to citizenship — to the House floor by Sept. 30.
Coffman further agreed to "enter into conversations" with his Colorado GOP colleagues about the issue.
Immigrant advocates later trumpeted Coffman's affirmative answers and cast them as an embrace of immediate reforms that included legal status.
Asked about these statements, Coffman emphasized that there were certain requirements that needed to be met before anyone started on a pathway to citizenship.
"The borders would have to be secure and our laws enforced, as certified by an entity outside of the executive branch, before anyone can achieve a permanent legal status," he said in an e-mail.
The process of independent certification of border security could take years.
Gardner and Tipton, too, said they were eager to have a conversation about those here illegally — but they want to see a certifiable border security plan first.
"At that point, you can have the discussion about everything else," Gardner said. "There are people who call every day who don't want a pathway to citizenship."
"The first step must be verifiable border security," he said. "The second step is to get a verifiable guest worker program."
He said he wants these two pieces of reform passed before adopting any sort of DREAM Act, which he hopes to approach with "empathy."
Lamborn declined to talk last week about the DREAM Act, saying he wanted to hear from his constituents first. He has never supported a DREAM Act and has said he does not support comprehensive immigration reform.
The Senate passed a bill in late June that overhauls the visa system, throws $46 billion to securing the border and furnishes a 13-year path to citizenship for those living illegally in the United States.
GOP leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has said they won't take up the Senate bill.
Gardner said he was disappointed there have been no House votes so far on immigration.
"I think it's important from a good-faith position to say we really are serious about it," he said. "I thought the first eight months of this year presented us with a pretty good window of opportunity. ... There's always a possibility of nothing happening, but I think that's the worst outcome."
Meanwhile, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition has a handful of events — voter registration drives, rallies, vigils — scheduled in Republican districts in August to prove constituent support for a path to citizenship.
"We have clergy all over the state, and we're asking faith leaders to call the congressman," said Miguel Oaxaca, a Denver small-business owner working with Together Colorado, a community organizing group working on immigration reform. "We're going to keep the pressure on so he keeps his promise."
Reps. DeGette and Perlmutter said taking immigration reform on in a series of smaller bills is not ideal.
"Everybody agrees that any sovereign country needs to have secure borders, but the question is what does that mean?" said DeGette, of Denver. "I don't support a piecemeal approach."
Perlmutter, of Jefferson County, agreed.
"Immigration will continue to be an issue until Congress fixes our broken immigration system," he said.