Immigration talk of town

Meeting with U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard gets emotional

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Taking part in a national debate can be as easy as walking down the street.

A town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard turned emotional Wednesday, as nearly 50 people in Centennial Hall placed their hearts on their sleeves in a one-hour discussion dominated by illegal immigration.

Although people also questioned the senator about issues including the effects of oil and gas drilling on the Western Slope, port security, rising costs of health care and complicated tax systems, immigration drew the most questions for Allard. The Republican is one of 100 senators who -- after a two-week Easter break -- likely will continue to address an issue that is inspiring rallies and stirring passion across the country.

An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, boosting the economy and work force while taking a toll on social and medical services.

Legislation to reform immigration policy is stuck in the Senate, bogged down with as many as 400 proposed amendments that Allard said reflect "so many different points of view."

"The best way to describe the environment on the Senate floor is that it's deadlocked," he told the Steamboat crowd.

The Steamboat audience in some ways represented a microcosm of the Senate debate.

"I feel like we won't recognize our country in 10 years if we don't do something. It's way beyond a crisis," Routt County resident Gene Cook said. "And I don't see where the will is to do what needs to be done."

One woman called the rising number of illegal immigrants a "mass invasion" and said the United States should stop providing opportunities for people here without documentation.

"If you don't give them jobs, they'll go back home the same way they got here," she said.

Allard said hiring laws regarding background checks should be strengthened.

"I think some employers need to have the book thrown at them," Allard said. "But there are some that work hard to comply with the law."

Allard said President Bush has "dropped the ball" on securing the nation's borders, and that it should be legal to ask for immigration status in public schools and hospitals.

"What if you don't bring your kids in to a hospital because you're afraid you're going to get deported?" countered Robert Gumbrecht, a political science instructor at Steamboat's Colorado Mountain College campus. "That's not the kid's fault."

"You have to be able to ask those questions," Allard said.

Bob White, Routt County's director of human services, said that $600,000 in federal Medicaid payments are made in Routt County every month. White said about 700 households in Routt County use one or more human services programs such as food and financial assistance, child care and Medicaid eligibility. Some of those programs require legal citizenship documentation, he said, and some -- such as the enforcement of child support payments -- do not.

Although White could not say what percentage of those 700 households involve citizenship issues, he said the number has been steadily rising for the past five years.

"What we do know is that it's increasing," White said after Wednesday's meeting. "A day doesn't go by when (office manager Kevin Haynes) doesn't interpret Spanish. It's a real issue in Routt County."

Allard said whether an immigration compromise will pass out of the Senate this session is "a question mark."

"I have my doubts about it," he said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar is scheduled to visit Steamboat on April 21.

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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