Immigration Hard-Liners on a High

Times Staff Writer

The passage of 11 anti-illegal immigrant measures by a special session of the Colorado Legislature this week is just the latest sign that momentum in the volatile debate is on the side of hard-liners.

Earlier this year, immigrant-rights groups were encouraged when the Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected several bills that party leaders characterized as extremist. Spring featured the largest political rallies Colorado had ever seen, as 75,000 immigrants and their supporters marched in front of the state Capitol demanding amnesty.

But late Monday, the Colorado Legislature approved a ban on nonemergency state services to adults who fail to prove they are in the country legally, a measure modeled on a broader law that Georgia adopted in April. Democrats here began boasting that their measure was the toughest in the nation.

"This is tough, effective, enforceable and practical," said Democrat Andrew Romanoff, speaker of the Colorado Assembly.

Also satisfied was Fred Elbel, director of Defend Colorado Now, who had clashed with Democrats over a ballot measure to restrict benefits to illegal immigrants. "We're helping set a precedent where states will step in and deal with a problem the federal government won't solve," he said.

The Colorado legislation, along with tough anti-illegal immigration bills passed in other states, has unnerved activists.

"It's a sad day for Colorado when our Democratic majority Legislature brags about new laws that would lead to people being cut off from aid," said Bill Vandenberg of the Colorado Progressive Coalition.

"Every election year needs a scapegoat, and this year ... it's beating up on illegal immigrants," said Vandenberg, who helped organize the immigrant marches.

In Washington, Congress is divided over immigration. The House of Representatives passed a border enforcement-only bill that includes a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Senate bill includes enforcement measures, but also a guest worker program that would provide a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Polls have shown the population is similarly divided over illegal immigration, but that hard-liners are more motivated.

That appears to be borne out in statehouses, where more than 400 anti-illegal immigration measures were proposed this year. The vast majority failed, but at least a dozen states passed bills targeting illegal immigration. Louisiana approved a law stiffening penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Wyoming barred students in the U.S. illegally from receiving some scholarships, while Missouri denied unemployment benefits to workers who weren't citizens. And states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland are considering benefit cuts modeled on those in Colorado and Georgia, which are the most far-reaching.

State lawmakers engage in largely symbolic actions when they pass those cuts because federal law already prohibits illegal immigrants from getting public aid, said Tanya Broder, an Oakland-based attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "They're sending a message to constituents that they're doing something about illegal immigration," she said.

Broder said the main effect of the Colorado law would be to discourage people, such as legal immigrants, from applying for government aid. Momentum is clearly building for such measures, Broder added. "I'm getting more calls from people in other states saying there's more pressure, not only from Republicans but from Democrats."

Democratic State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald smiled widely when a reporter said at a news conference Tuesday morning that "you're now the party of 'tough on immigration.' "

Fitz-Gerald joked to the press corps: "Thank you, did you all get that?" She and Romanoff, however, denied that they had compromised their party's beliefs.

"We were not railroaded into passing anything that betrayed our principles," Romanoff said, noting that Democrats killed a number of stiffer anti-illegal immigrant measures proposed by Republicans.

Democrats were forced into the special session by a confluence of political forces. The state Supreme Court last month struck from the November ballot the measure backed by Defend Colorado Now. Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who has a reputation as an immigration moderate, demanded that the Legislature convene and put the measure back on the ballot.

Democrats resisted, pointing out that they had passed bills on illegal immigration in the regular session, such as stiffer penalties for human-traffickers. But they gave in after political pressure escalated: Republicans hammered them for being soft on illegal immigration. Some political analysts warned the Democrats they could lose their legislative majority over the issue. The party's candidate for governor, Atty. Gen. Bill Ritter, had to dodge a barrage of attack ads from his GOP rival.

The attacks continued during the special session, when an anti-illegal immigrant group made recorded calls bashing Democrats on the issue.

Most Republicans wanted to place the benefit cut on the fall ballot because they thought it could help them retake the statehouse. Instead, some joined with Democrats to pass the bill denying nonemergency benefits, such as Medicare and unemployment insurance, to adults who can't prove they are in Colorado legally. It creates a maximum 18-month jail term for falsifying documents and, like the Georgia legislation, exempts treatment for communicable diseases.

During the five-day session, which began Thursday, the Legislature also passed a bill requiring employers to demonstrate their workers are in the country legally. Legislators made it a felony to knowingly vote illegally. Owens has 30 days to sign the legislation.

Lawmakers also placed on the November ballot two measures: One would bar employers from receiving state tax breaks if they hired illegal immigrants, and another would allow the state attorney general to sue the federal government to force compliance with immigration laws.

About 1 million Coloradans will be required to prove their legal residence to get benefits when the law takes effect Aug. 1, state officials said. Though some Democrats insisted that the benefit cut was mainly symbolic, immigrant advocates said it would increase fear in the community. "More people are going to be staying away from [medical] clinics, staying away from calling police when they really need to," said Kristen Sharp, an organizer with Padres Unidos, a group of immigrant parents of schoolchildren.

That has already happened in Georgia, where the benefit cut, coupled with stiff employment sanctions, won't take effect until July 2007. Some real estate agents report that Latino interest in buying homes has dipped; fearing they might lose their jobs, illegal immigrants are becoming wary of making such commitments.

State Sen. Chip Rogers, the author of Georgia's law, was not surprised his measure was the framework for Colorado's approach. "This is really not a partisan issue," said Rogers, a Republican. "If you look at polling data, you'll see that the American people across the board understand the seriousness of the issue."

The politician most identified with harsher immigration laws, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), said the move by local Democrats showed how politicians must take hard stands on illegal immigration to win elections. He said: "They're all trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo."

Times staff writer Richard Fausset in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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