Steamboat Springs Routt County’s state representative could be at the forefront of debates about illegal immigration policy at the Capitol in 2011.
Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said this week that he’s working on a bill to address illegal immigration’s costs to the state and its taxpayers — a cost that he said Tuesday is about $1.5 billion a year. That figure drew questions from veteran Republican legislator Al White, a Hayden senator and recently deposed member of the state’s Joint Budget Committee. The director of a Steamboat Springs organization that provides resources for immigrants said the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, a group of GOP legislators that includes Baumgardner and could propose Arizona-style legislation next year, is not addressing the true underlying issues surrounding immigration policy.
Baumgardner cited the $1.5 billion figure after attending the study committee’s Monday forum at the Capitol to discuss illegal immigration issues. Baumgardner said the event included discussion of gang-related incidents along the Mexico border; Colorado workers not being able to find jobs “because illegals are taking those jobs”; and “the amount of people who are paying upward of $30,000 to be smuggled into the country.”
An article in The Denver Post this week said some critics called the forum an “echo-chamber hearing” for its lack of testimony from immigrant-rights groups.
“There was comment from the audience — we did take questions at the end,” Baumgardner said. “Some people felt that we only got one side of it, and they asked if we could schedule another hearing.”
Tatiana Achcar, executive director of Steamboat-based Integrated Community, did not attend the event but said it appeared one-sided.
“I believe the echo chamber analogy describes it well,” she said. “Just folks with some fears and some philosophies that get together and toot each other’s horns.
“It doesn’t even appear that there’s a whole lot of discussion about why things are the way they are. I think it’s quite ironic, frankly, that the Republican group or committee would get together and bash on illegal immigration, when a lot of their constituents, including small businesses … have for decades reaped the benefits of that labor. And that’s why they’ve come. If there was no demand, there would be no supply.”
Baumgardner said that although he doesn’t yet have specifics for the bill he plans to propose, the legislation will be intended to reduce costs.
“The basic idea of that bill is to save the state of Colorado $1.5 billion — that’s what illegals are costing the state of Colorado right now,” Baumgardner said.
He then cited Colorado’s looming budget deficit of more than $1 billion.
“If we weren’t paying $1.5 billion for services for illegals, we would be able to balance our budget and not have to cut anything,” he said.
That comment echoed remarks by state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, who told The Pueblo Chieftain this week that Arizona-style immigration changes could cut costs and create “a zero-sum gain” to balance the state budget.
The Chieftain also reported that at Monday’s forum, Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform said two-thirds of Colorado’s $1.4 billion costs from illegal immigrants are related to education. That group pushes for tougher immigration regulations and enforcement.
White noted that educating all children is a federal requirement. He said Colorado’s general fund investment in K-12 education is “about a couple of billion” out of a total cost of $4.3 billion.
“I’m not quite sure how you would determine that $1.5 billion of that expenditure is from educating illegal immigrant children,” White said. “That’s an awfully high percentage.”
Baumgardner visited Arizona on a Republican committee trip in August to assess immigration conditions in the border state that passed controversial immigration legislation earlier this year.
Baumgardner said that during his trip, he heard stories about home break-ins, stolen vehicles, shootings and other crimes along the border with Mexico.
Arizona’s law, among other provisions, will require police to check immigration status during arrests and traffic stops and require immigrants to carry citizenship papers. Some of the law’s provisions have raised questions about constitutionality.
The law is pending legal challenges in federal court.
Achcar said its tone was damaging.
“Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum … Arizona-style legislation brews powerful negative sentiment that has negative impacts on everyone,” she said. “Legislation like that rarely tends to lead to sound policy and long-term solutions. It just brews fear and panic.”
State Sen.-elect Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, is planning legislation similar to the Arizona law. Baumgardner said his bill is not tied to Lambert’s.
“Kent Lambert’s bill has nothing to do with my bill. … There will be several pieces of legislation,” Baumgardner said. “Sen. Lambert’s bill is the bill he’s going to run; my bill will be the bill that I’m going to run. They may be similar, or they may not look anything alike.”
Baumgardner said he plans to talk with involved agencies and organizations before finalizing his bill.
“You’re looking at three weeks to a month before knowing exactly how the bill is going to look,” Baumgardner said Tuesday. “Until we have all the meetings with all those agencies … it’s hard to say what it’s going to look like.”
White, meanwhile, said illegal immigration is not a top item on his legislative agenda next year.
“On my priority list, it’s not very high — and that’s not to suggest we don’t have a problem,” White said. But “it seems to me that jobs and the economy is a higher priority on people’s minds at this time.”
White added that he’s “not trying to second-guess” Baumgardner and credited the representative’s initiative to visit Arizona and study immigration policy.
“All I can say is it’s not an issue that I’m trying to prioritize,” White said. “I’m trying to prioritize improving our economy through stabilizing tourism funding.”