Colorado's special legislative session made some modest progress on immigration reform, but its biggest benefits were purely political.
The winners? The Democrats, who stole the thunder on the wedge issue Republicans had hoped to use to rally the party's base in November. Of course, incumbent legislators from both parties now have momentum on a hot-button political issue. All can now campaign on passing the nation's toughest law regarding illegal immigrants and public benefits.
But we remain skeptical that this new law, absent reform on the federal level, will do anything to curb illegal immigration.
Here is a quick summary of legislation passed during the session:
House Bill 1023, which requires people 18 and older to show valid proof of residency, such as a driver's license or state-issued identification card, when applying for public services or benefits in Colorado. The requirements would not apply in emergency situations. The legislation takes effect Aug. 1. We have no problem with these requirements, which take a reasonable approach to determining benefits eligibility.
HB 1015 deals with employers. It requires employers to obtain proof that their employees are in Colorado legally and allows the state Department of Labor and Employment to audit, and potentially fine, employers who "recklessly disregard" that requirement. This is bad legislation. On the surface, lawmakers appear to have cracked down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. But the language is so vague, employers can't determine what specific steps they are supposed to take to keep from getting fined.
Finally, there are HB 1014 and HB 1022, which are nothing more than pandering. HB 1014 requires the state attorney general to collect from the federal government the money Colorado spends on federally mandated services to illegal immigrants. HB 1022, which would go to the ballot, allows the attorney general to sue the federal government to recoup those expenses. Given that the state has no idea how much it is spending on services to illegal immigrants nor how much it is collecting from them in taxes, these bills seem nothing more than a waste of taxpayers' time and money on unnecessary litigation.
Republican Gov. Bill Owens called this special session after the courts refused to allow Initiative 55 to go to the ballot. That initiative was vague, unreasonable and intentionally cruel. But many thought the issue would be a magnet to get traditional Republican voters to the polls in November. Republicans went into the special session with the goal of getting an alternative on the ballot.
Instead, Democrats banded together to keep a major initiative off the ballot and used the special session to craft a compromise plan that allowed them to address immigration reform on their terms.
So score one for the Democrats in the game of partisanship, but otherwise, write off these five days at the Capitol as little more than political folly. Special sessions of the legislature should be reserved for issues that are critical to the function of state government. Reforming illegal immigration doesn't come close to that threshold.
Federal immigration reform is sorely needed, and the lack of progress in Congress is frustrating. Perhaps if Congress were accomplishing more, state legislatures wouldn't be trying to craft their own solutions. But the bottom line is you can't fix a federal problem at the state level, and no one should pretend that what Colorado did this summer fixes much of anything.