For thousands of undocumented workers in Colorado and millions of others in similar circumstances across the country, America’s 234th birthday found them living in a netherworld with, on one hand, a tenuous hold on the American dream and, on the other, a past life whose roots and so many familiar traditions fast disappearing in life’s rearview mirror.
Though largely silent about the reality of life in the shadows, undocumented workers are as likely to be the subject of sometimes loud and hateful attacks as they are thoughtful and sincere calls for justice.
President Obama, in a July 1st speech at the American University School of International Service in Washington, called on Congress to act on significant immigration reform. The New York Times praised the speech as one with “eloquence” and “clarity.” But others, while not disagreeing, found the speech lacking in two fundamental areas: having a date certain for action or a legislative plan on moving the issue to the fore.
The president stopped short of condemning Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, passed in the spring as a way to stop illegal immigration by any means necessary. Among its provisions include arbitrarily inquiring about immigration status to those not even accused of a crime. The president artfully called the legislation “ill conceived.”
“It has been almost a quarter of a century since Congress has taken the issue seriously,” said former Colorado House Speaker and current Senate candidate, Andrew Romanoff. “The time certainly is now,” said Romanoff, whose father and grandparents were immigrants and who has made immigration a key part of his platform.
While immigration opponents steadily hammer home the proposition that undocumented workers are taking jobs away from Americans, Romanoff says they know it is just not true. “I’ve talked with farmers in the Arkansas Valley and asked if they’ve tried hiring American workers,” he said. The uniform answer is “we’ve offered two times the wages and we can’t find any Americans willing to take these jobs.”
Romanoff agrees with the president’s path to legal status and ultimately to citizenship for the undocumented; they need to step up and declare their status, pay back taxes, learn English and wait in line like anyone seeking citizenship.
But, the only move toward immigration reform in Congress now is a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and it appears to be slipping irretrievably into the shadows. Romanoff said he would make immigration reform a priority if elected. “When you seek public office, you should be interested in solving problems.”
In 2006, in a special session of the legislature called by then Gov. Bill Owens, Colorado lawmakers passed a dozen bills targeting illegal immigration. Some of the key provisions in the special session legislation included measures denying “most non-emergency services to illegal aliens over 18,” denying business permits or professional licenses to “those in the country illegally,” and “restricting school bus service and school lunches to children of illegal immigrants.”
But with neither Republicans nor Democrats ready to move on immigration reform but both are seeking the possibility of winning over this growing Latino voting bloc, former Denver television news executive and current immigrant advocate Fidel “Butch” Montoya has a message for both parties. “We will boycott the (November) election,” he said, leaving both parties in the lurch. When President Obama was elected “there was an expectation that something was going to come out of this,” Montoya said. So far, he says, the only things that the president has delivered are eloquent speeches. “He hasn’t done a thing for us.”
Montoya believes sitting the November election out may force both political parties to act on immigration, particularly in states where a significant Latino turnout could tilt the balance. For politicians like Nevada’s Harry Reid, who is in a tough battle against a Tea Party candidate with a hard line stance against immigration, winning the Latino vote “could mean survival,” said Montoya.
If neither party does anything on the subject, a tough life just gets tougher for the nation’s farm workers, poultry workers, hotel domestics and others who work in jobs usually relegated to the immigrant workforce. “We have to stop the raids,” said Montoya, and “stop separating families.” Immigrants, he said, “are easy prey.”
But the subject is ripe for exploitation and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who championed SB 1070, has been extremely vocal. She recently said most illegal immigrants entering Arizona are being used to transport drugs across the border. Her comment was branded as racist by immigration proponents and without documentation by her own state’s law enforcement officials. She followed that a few days later with a more strident reason for tougher immigration enforcement. “Our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either burned or just lying out there, that have been beheaded,” she said. But medical examiners from across the state said they have never seen or heard of anything to support Brewer’s allegations.
Montoya, and other immigration reform advocates, aren’t quite ready to walk away from the president just yet. But if he promises immigration reform after the 2010 elections, Montoya said, “does nothing” and then comes courting Latinos for his reelection in 2012, it’s going to be a tough argument to sell.