How Coloradans Helped Design Federal Immigration Overhaul

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There’s finally a new starting point for overhauling the US immigration system. The “gang” of eight senators, including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, has introduced a proposal for federal immigration reform. It's called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” You can link to a summary of it here, and the entire bill here.

Many immigrants rights groups in Colorado are applauding the plan, which offers a path to citizenship for millions of people -- people like Rosalba Cebollos. She’s 21, was born in Mexico, and has two kids. She does child-care work in the Roaring Fork Valley, and she says she’s in this country on a work permit. “I am looking forward to having something permanent, and not only for me," she says. Her brother and mother are in the country illegally. If this legislation passes, they could get provisional status and a chance to become US citizens. But getting citizenship could take 13 years or more. Cebollos isn't so upbeat about that part of the package. “Well, I don’t like that it has to take so long for this to happen,” she says.

But that it could happen at all is something State Senator Ted Harvey, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, finds disturbing. “Giving amnesty to 15 million people who have knowingly broken our laws and gone around the legal process that all the other immigrants of the world have to go through is unfair and unequitable,” he said on the day of the plan's release.

Harvey says border security and workplace enforcement must come first. This plan, from the bipartisan Gang of 8, addresses both. Whether it does so sufficiently will be debated, for sure. Harvey’s in line with a majority of Republicans, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll out this month. It finds they’re far less likely than Democrats and Independents to support a path to citizenship.

Meanwhile, Celia Reyes-Martinez, state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy group, praises the path to citizenship, but with some caveats. “For example, there is a cut off date for those who have been here before December 31, 2011," she says. "Unfortunately, that excludes people who came here after that, but we realize we have to compromise.”

Julien Ross, of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, takes issue with the provision that allocates billions of dollars for more border protection -- because, he says, the border’s as secure as it’s ever been. But Ross added that for people who’ve spent their careers on the immigration issue, this is a big moment. “This is a culmination of decades of work [and] struggle within the immigrants rights groups, but also advocacy from business, labor. There’s a broad coalition who have worked to see this come to fruition.”

Connection to Colorado
Several of the big ideas the new federal package contains originated in a handful of states that lit a fire under the federal government. Colorado is one of them. Joining us is Jim Griesemer, who specializes in public policy at the University of Denver. He leads DU’s Strategic Issues Program, which in 2008, began a year-long, statewide conversation on immigration. After that, Colorado, led by Senator Micahel Bennet, drew up its own plan -- “the Colorado Compact” -- as if to say to Washington, “Here. Take this. Make policy.” Griesemer spots a lot of Colorado’s approach in this new Senate proposal. “From what I’ve seen, I would say that it follows it very closely," Griesemer says.

"First of all, it looks at the immigration system as a complete system. Second element is -- an an important point for our panel -- is that it looks at it not just as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to be captured," he adds. "And you see that in the expansion of the H1B visas. You see that in the new, proposed “W” visa for lower-skilled workers. Clearly, the folks working on this were trying to take the broad view and that is very necessary in the case of our very broken immigration system.”

The DU research panel included members from across the political spectrum, in business, government, education, and theology -- from Republican Pete Coors, Chairman of Coors Brewing, to Democrat Polly Baca, the first Hispanic woman to serve in the Colorado State Senate. Those panel members took testimony from law enforcement, immigration attorneys, healthcare professionals, and business and labor. DU's Jim Griesemer chaired those hearings. He talks with host Ryan Warner about the populations and industries in Colorado that have the most at stake in immigration reform, and about the implications for the new federal plan on Coloradans.

Andrea Dukakis, Elaine Grant, and Ryan Warner contributed to this report.