GOP focuses on illegal immigration

Members of the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, an ad-hoc group of statehouse conservatives, are looking at the alleged costs of illegal immigration as a way of balancing Colorado’s budget.

Monday’s hearing drew about half of the 21 members identified on the RSCC website, plus three members of the 2011 freshmen legislative class: Rep.-elect Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton; Rep.-elect Chris Holbert, R-Parker; and Rep.-elect Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction.

The intent of the forum, according to RSCC members, was to discuss the impact of illegal immigration on jobs, the economy, schools and health care. It continues RSCC’s focus this year on the issue of illegal immigration; RSCC members traveled to Arizona in August to get firsthand experience on how the state is dealing with illegal immigration, and to meet with Sen. Russell Pearce, the primary sponsor of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said the hearing Monday was part of an RSCC series on a number of issues, including states’ rights and the Colorado budget. Harvey said the impact of illegal immigration on jobs, the economy and the state budget is huge, and that providing education to the children of illegal immigrants gives them an incentive to come to Colorado. He also pointed out that housing illegal immigrant inmates also impacts state and local budgets for corrections facilities. He cited as an example Weld County, where he said 20 percent of its inmates are illegal immigrants.

In 2006, the General Assembly passed a number of bills in a special session on illegal immigration called by then-Gov. Bill Owens. The bills enacted dealt with voluntary verification of legal status by employers and penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants; and restricting public benefits such as welfare, health care and public housing to those who can prove citizenship status.

However, RSCC members indicated Monday those bills did not go far enough, pointing to more than a dozen bills introduced in the past four years that did not get legislative approval, such as requiring proof of citizenship to vote, and mandatory verification of workers’ legal status. The 2006 session did not bring Colorado “any great success,” said Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs.

Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies of Washington, D.C., told legislators that half of the recent arrivals in the United States in the past decade have come here illegally, but did not provide any data to back up that statement. She also noted that during the past decade 13 million have immigrated to the United States, but the economy has produced only one million jobs. She did not say how many of the 13 million were here illegally. “Immigration will not self-regulate through economic cycles,” Vaughan said.

Both Vaughan and Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, also from Washington, D.C., cited U.S. Census and Pew Hispanic Center figures as the basis for their immigration numbers, but also said the census undercounts illegal immigrants. Martin went on to say that because the census and Pew figures were inaccurate he adjusted them, in part to reflect immigrants who are in the United States for less than a year, Chinese immigrants, and children born in the United States to illegal immigrants (and who are legally U.S. citizens).

Martin was brought in to discuss the fiscal impacts of illegal immigration. He estimated the total cost to Colorado at $1.4 billion per year; of that, he said $967 million is for K-12 education, although states are required to provide that education under the 1982 Supreme Court Plyler v. Doe decision. To that point, Martin told legislators the state did not have to provide that education.

Martin also said that illegal immigrants take 166,000 jobs that could be going to the unemployed in Colorado. But when asked if Coloradans would want to work at those jobs, given that many are low wage positions, Martin said many Americans wouldn’t be willing to take the jobs that are available to illegal immigrants. Many of the jobs are also “underground,” meaning that employers are paying below minimum wage and can get away with that because of the desperation of those workers, he said.

The RSCC invited in two business owners who say they are impacted by illegal immigration. One employer noted that he has to compete with companies that hire illegal immigrants. “Companies who follow the rule of law are forced to compete on a playing field that is not level,” said Steve Hendrickson of Porter Industries, a janitorial service whose employees clean offices and warehouses. Hendrickson said his competitors are not “flagrant violators” of immigration law, but do just enough to claim minimum levels of compliance. Hendrickson also pointed out that his company has building keys to the businesses they service, and indicated he wouldn’t want to give those keys to an illegal immigrant who also might be a terrorist.

Sheriff Terry Maketa of El Paso County spoke to the committee about “Secure Communities,” a database through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that records the fingerprints of those arrested, and then can inform police departments about criminal illegal immigrants who may be eligible for deportation. To date, 32 states have signed up for the program, but Maketa said Gov. Bill Ritter is holding up Colorado’s participation. That prompted Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, to suggest the RSCC sponsor legislation to get Colorado into the system. The Pueblo Chieftain reported this week that Ritter’s hesitation is due to concerns about the program’s efficacy. Looper also suggested the RSCC sponsor legislation on E-verify, which would require employers to verify that their workers are here legally. Use of E-verify is voluntary in Colorado, according to Vaughan.

The last issue tackled by the committee Monday was a discussion on requiring voters to prove they are U.S. citizens, a conversation led by El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink. While voters are required to attest that they are U.S. citizens when they register to vote, they are not required to show photo ID when they vote, Balink said. He is not alone on this issue; Secretary of State-elect Scott Gessler also has said this would be a priority for his administration. “I’m hoping with a Republican majority in the House we can push forward some of this kind of legislation,” Balink said.

Rep.-elect Scott, on his Facebook page Tuesday, said Monday’s hearing featured “great speakers and information that will help us move forward.”

Several RSCC legislators, including Sen.-elect Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, have expressed support for Arizona-type legislation in Colorado. Kerr said the data presented Monday by FAIR showed legislators could impact Colorado’s current budget shortfall of more than $1 billion by addressing the illegal immigration issue. “People need to realize the unfunded mandate of education created by the federal government” for illegal immigration, he said. “We can’t have an uneducated workforce, but we also shouldn’t have the federal government saying Colorado has to pay for it, or for health care” for illegal immigrants. “The feds need to pony up for it,” he added.

Kerr also said the state should look at the number of people who are incarcerated in county jails, noting that El Paso County was able to save as much as $1.2 million through participation in the ICE 287G program, which allows ICE-trained local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws and which provides for payment from ICE for housing illegal immigrant inmates.

While the RSCC may be interested in pursuing legislation and may find it a friendly home in the Republican-led House, the Democratic-controlled Senate is another story.

Majority Caucus Chair Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, rejected any notions that the Senate would consider immigration legislation modeled on SB 1070, when their top focus is on jobs and the economy. She told The Colorado Statesman this week passage of SB 1070 in Arizona has resulted in economically devastating consequences to that state’s tourism and convention business. “If people want to have a conversation about [immigration] that’s okay but that is the model of what not to do,” Carroll said. And given that jobs and the economy are the Senate’s top priorities in the next session, “it’s improbable that we in the Senate would want to advance anything that goes the wrong way,” she said.

House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, said Monday that while he was open to cost-effective proposals for immigration reform, “foisting a one-size-fits-all law such as Arizona’s 1070 onto our unique state isn’t the thoughtful answer Coloradans deserve,” and called the bill constitutionally questionable. He also said the “extremists” of the RSCC “are politicizing immigration for personal gain” while Democrats are focused on finding ways to get Coloradans back to work.

Both CIS and FAIR were founded by a Michigan ophthalmologist and environmentalist identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement;” in addition, FAIR has been called a “hate group” by the SPLC.

Both organizations were started by John Tanton, who founded FAIR 30 years ago and continues to sit on its board; he started CIS in 1985. FAIR has received more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, which provides research grants for studies in heredity and its leaders are associated with controversial statements regarding eugenics. The Fund was founded in 1937 by an American millionaire who purportedly advocated sending African-Americans back to Africa. The fund also has provided financial support to neo-Nazi and white nationalist authors, according to liberal watchdog groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and Fairness and Accuracy in Media.

Legislative members of RSCC claimed not to know about the backgrounds of either FAIR or CIS or their founder. Rich Bratten, RSCC’s executive director, said the decision to bring the organizations to the hearing was a group decision and said it reflected a desire to bring in organizations that were conducting a lot of research on the immigration issue.