Chavez seminar series packed

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— Contrary to images of immigrants crossing the border under the cover of darkness, Linda Chavez does not think illegal aliens are invading this country.

Turn on the TV, Chavez said, and those dark, grainy images of border crossings will appear on every news channel, including Fox News, for which Chavez is a political analyst.

"Immigration has become, I think, the leading controversial topic in American politics today," Chavez said, opening Thursday's presentation.

A crowd of 225 listened attentively while Chavez delivered the first in the four-part Seminars at Steamboat series.

Colorado has an estimated population of 250,000 illegal immigrants, which ranks 12th in the nation.

According to Chavez, who lives in Virginia but has a second home in Granby, immigration is the top issue in the race for Colorado governor.

As a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author, Chavez has researched the topic of immigration for decades, publishing her first book in 1991. She arrived in Steamboat with facts and figures -- not to mention an opinion, which she said has not changed through the years.

Audience members inquired about national security threats, Mexico's role in immigration policy, crime rates, the status and rights of children born to illegal immigrants and how the Hispanic vote will shape future elections.

Chavez answered each question.

Chavez said there is an economic need for immigrants in the U.S., and that the illegal immigration population contributes 5 percent of our gross national product, working jobs many Americans won't.

"If we need people to fill jobs, and immigrants will take these jobs and do well, it's better to keep them here and keep the money in our economy than move those jobs overseas," she said.

The next Seminars at Steamboat is Aug. 3. Steve Bell, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and former ABC news correspondent and news anchor for Good Morning America, will discuss "The Media and Politics."

A hard life in Mexico, where laws mean little and corruption reigns, contributes significantly to illegal immigration.

"It's a huge problem," she said. "You don't go from the bottom to the top in Mexico."

Chavez said crime rates and the threat illegal immigrants pose to Americans is the "single biggest myth" out there.

The rate of incarceration for Mexican immigrants is less than 1 percent, while the rate for non-Hispanic whites is 1.3 percent, Chavez said.

Chavez then moved from the "single biggest myth" to what she believes is the hardest issue out there -- the status of children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S.

"It is the next stage in the immigration debate," Chavez said.

She believes illegal immigrants -- and legal immigrants -- have an obligation and a desire to assimilate to American life. That means learning English.

Most adult immigrants understand that an education opens doors to their children, Chavez said. Education is an expensive burden for Americans, and Chavez suggested illegal immigrants pay tuition for their children's schooling.

Immigrants could use the money they pay "coyotes" to illegally move them across the border as a down payment on things such as education and health insurance, Chavez suggested.

Chavez, who was born in New Mexico and is now the chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, closed the evening by addressing the timeliest issue -- elections.

In polls, Hispanics tend to be socially conservative, but it's difficult to get a feel for which party will benefit from the growing Hispanic vote.

"They are trending more conservative," Chavez said. "But they are concerned about the tenor of the debate. They are angry and blaming the Republicans. Non-Hispanic whites are not having babies. (Hispanics) will become a larger part of our population; making them feel not welcome won't help the Republican party. (Election year) 2006 will be interesting. I think most people really want this problem solved."

To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com.

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