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Posted: January 01, 2010

Cote’s Colorado: Coming out of the shadows

Immigration reform in policy and real life

Mike Cote

As the crowd began dispersing after the press conference, Lalo Pacheco stood in front of a television camera, offering his take in fluent Spanish on the one-year immigration study by a nonpartisan University of Denver panel.

Of the hundred or so people gathered that December morning, it's a safe bet Pacheco was among only a handful of people who could have provided such commentary for the Univision network. The DU sophomore grew up in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado among the children of Mexican families.

But neither Pacheco nor his parents are immigrants. His family arrived in Colorado several generations ago from Spain. So for Pacheco, citizenship has never been an issue as it has for some Hispanics his age who are here illegally thanks to the circumstances of their birth.

"Architecture for Immigration Reform: Fitting the Pieces of Public Policy" is the 50-page report DU panel chairman James Griesemer introduced that morning. Pacheco applauded the path to citizenship the report advocates, but said he had reservations about the document.

"It could have been more progressive and more socially based," said Pacheco, a member of DU Students for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. "More humanity, rather than just business and the United States' self interest."

Bridging those two interests - social needs versus economic needs - has proven to be such a daunting task that the United States has avoided tackling immigration reform. The DU report's 25 recommendations include employment verification, the use of national identification cards, promoting English language proficiency, unifying families and simplifying visas.

The report neither advocates a blanket amnesty for undocumented residents nor suggests booting all 12 million of them out of the country. As it acknowledges the need for securing borders it also recognizes the economic advantages of immigrant labor.

In his remarks, Griesemer talked of allowing "people to come out of the shadows." We're about to find out if we're ready to shine a light into those shadows. As ColoradoBiz went to press, an immigration reform bill was introduced in Congress. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperty Act has 80 co-sponsors including Colorado Democratic congressional representatives Jared Polis, John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette. (The nonpartisan Competitive Enterprise Institute immediately declared the bill a "mixed bag," saying its E-Verify provision would be onerous for employers.)

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Louis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) would create a path to citizenship for children who were brought to this country illegally by their parents, provided the children complete high school and two years of college, military service or employment.

What happens to children who become caught up in that problem is the heart of "Just Like Us," Helen Thorpe's chronicle of four Mexican girls - two who don't have legal documentation. Thorpe, a former writer for The New Yorker (and the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper) spent five years following the girls as they made the transition from high school to college, reporting about their friendship and struggles.

What has surprised Thorpe as she tours the country to promote the book is the misconception many people have about gaining citizenship or getting a work visa. Neither would have been possible for two of the girls she wrote about.

"People always ask, ‘What can they do to become legal?' And I say, ‘Well, given they entered the country without visas, or documents, our current law says you cannot rectify your situation as long as you stay in the U.S. You have to leave and apply the right way,'" Thorpe says.

Sometimes, the person who asked the question at a book signing follows up with an e-mail, certain Thorpe is wrong.

"This is what the debate about amnesty and the path to citizenship is about," Thorpe says. "But people in the audiences I talk to, they just believe - they're convinced - that our country is very friendly to immigrants and that if people fill out paperwork they can become citizens. They're sure the path to citizenship already exists."

Right now, that path leads to the shadows.

At www.cobizmag.com: Read an interview with Helen Thorpe and an excerpt from "Just Like Us."

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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