Colo. House speaker stumps in Aspen for immigration reform
December 19, 2005
Colorado needs to find a way to stiffen penalties for employers who don’t adequately check to see if workers are in the country legally, according to the top Democrat in the Colorado House.During a visit to Aspen on Monday, House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said he wants to see what options the state has to weigh in on the verification issue. “I don’t want to just say ‘It’s Washington, D.C.’s fault,'” Romanoff said.On the other hand, he said, it is largely the federal government’s fault. He believes the feds aren’t doing enough to prevent the hiring or exploitation of illegal workers, nor to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country.”Washington is all talk and no teeth,” Romanoff said.He wants to explore whether the state can impose its own penalties when a business knowingly hires illegal workers. Right now the federal government requires background checks and enforces the regulations, but enforcement is widely seen as lax.There is a question about the right of a state to intervene on that issue, according to Donald Kaufman, a Glenwood Springs attorney with extensive experience on immigration and naturalization issues. If an employer is charged under a state statute, a legal challenge is virtually certain, he said.”The boundary isn’t entirely clear,” Romanoff agreed.If the state cannot act, he said, state lawmakers must lobby their congressional delegation to adopt stiffer penalties and beef up enforcement against businesses that don’t verify the legality of employees.Illegal immigration is a hot topic in Aspen right now after a drug raid by the Aspen Police Department and federal Drug Enforcement Administration on two popular restaurants Dec. 2. The sweep led to the arrests of 10 Hispanic men on drug charges and another 11 on alleged illegal immigration violations.In the bigger picture, Gov. Bill Owens, legislative leaders and prominent citizens like former Gov. Richard Lamm are promising to make immigration a top issue in 2006.Romanoff said immigration is an important issue, but not one of his top three (see related story). “Nobody wants to dodge this issue, but I don’t want to demagogue it either,” he said.Immigration issues are difficult for him because all four of his grandparents immigrated – legally, he believes. So he values the opportunities immigration presents to residents of foreign countries and the benefits it provides to the United States. But he said the country’s current immigration policy is broken.”I don’t think it’s healthy for the country to allow millions of people to break the law,” he said. “I think the appropriate level of illegal immigration is zero.”Romanoff said he and his staffers are still researching various immigration reform proposals by Owens, President Bush, and U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain. Therefore, he hasn’t completely formed his opinion on all related issues.Romanoff insists Colorado residents and their lawmakers need to play a role in helping set a new immigration policy, since the state is affected so greatly. That includes helping determine the appropriate level of legal immigration each year.While the state’s role in overseeing employee verification is in doubt, there are steps the Legislature can take on immigration, he said.He expects a bill in the session that starts Jan. 11 that would require municipal police departments and county sheriff’s offices to play a greater role in immigration enforcement. If it is approved, the Legislature must then supply funds to accompany greater responsibilities, he insisted.A citizen initiative that would limit state services for illegal immigrants could also end up before voters in 2006. Lamm is among the leaders of that effort.Romanoff said he will try to help ground debate of that initiative in reality. He said he doubts it would save the state millions of dollars, as supporters claim. He also doubts it would leave people “bleeding in the streets,” as critics contend.Romanoff said children of illegal immigrants couldn’t be refused education for kindergarten through high school. The state is federally mandated to provide education, just as it must provide emergency medical care.The initiative could eliminate programs like food stamps and Medicaid for people in the country illegally.Romanoff said his hope is that the Legislature sticks to immigration issues it can really influence rather than use the session as a forum on opinions.”I don’t want the legislative session to just be consumed by blather,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.