Ralph Whittum: Electoral strategy instead of legislation

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It will be interesting to see if the political leaders who are making hay about illegal immigration actually take the issue seriously come Nov. 3 — the day after the midterm elections.

I ask this not because I think there is nothing wrong with the current system; there certainly is, and we need to take serious steps soon. Yet it is clear that politicians in Colorado and across the country are exploiting the immigration issue to score political points.

By using political theatrics with illegal immigration, they are using the issue to scapegoat past policy, spread fear among the electorate, and foster a culture of xenophobia. We should hope that our political leaders’ rhetoric matches their actions following the election, but don’t hold your breath.

There is a serious problem with a group of Colorado Republican legislators who traveled this month to Arizona to meet with that state’s governor and legislative leaders. They billed the trip as an opportunity to “refine (their) understanding and fortify our resolve.” This trip signals that the Colorado GOP in the statehouse wants to craft a policy similar to the controversial Arizona law. Whether or not you agree with the Arizona bill, it is simply not right for Colorado, and these legislators who went to Arizona used the bill for a political photo-op. Lawmakers who run on an anti-immigrant platform in 2010 should beware of blowback in the 2012 elections and beyond.

One of the trip’s attendees was our own representative, Randy Baumgardner, who represents District 57, which includes Routt County. As our state representative, Baumgardner should know that Colorado already has tough immigration laws on the books and that the legislature’s efforts would be best focused on aiding employers and creating a better system of documentation at the state level. To attempt an enactment of the Arizona bill, as Rep. Baumgardner probably knows, would delay the process even more because all previous efforts would be wiped away rather than improved.

The controversy and the eventual judicial stay that was placed on the most extreme parts of the Arizona law illustrate the clear distinction between politics and effective policy. Immigration reform must be comprehensive for it to ever work; a state-by-state patchwork is not the way to solve the problem and Rep. Baumgardner should not play politics with this issue but rather do his job and get to work for the people of Northwest Colorado.

Republicans will tell you that the federal government during the past two years (the tenure of the current administration) has not acted to mitigate the growing problem. However, that is just not the case. On Aug. 13, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Border Security bill. The new law provides appropriations for 1,000 new border patrol agents, more unmanned drones and support for the overburdened court system, among other benefits. The U.S. now has more boots on the ground in the southwest border region than in any other time in our history.

While this is a significant step, it certainly will not be enough.

We were close to a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, but the GOP blocked its passage in the Senate. Despite the pros and cons of the 2007 legislation, it was a start and the federal government needs to make this a top priority following this election year.

Our elected officials need to get serious, seek consensus and pass comprehensive immigration reform that is enforceable, rational and most importantly, that requires accountability.

It is the federal government that should be accountable to secure our borders. It needs to be accountable for those in this country legally or illegally and accountable for the employers who hire them.

I hope that our new legislature takes this issue seriously when they take their seats in Denver and Washington next January. Comprehensive immigration reform will provide security, fuel our economy, save lives and provide certainty to employers when hiring seasonal and full-time workers.

Ralph Whittum is a longtime Steamboat Springs resident and a ski patrol lifer.

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