Some of the state's politicians are leading the drive for immigration changes nationwide. and the state had been planning a showdown over a ballot initiative to prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving some government services.
But the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected the controversial measure, ruling 5-2 that it violates a constitutional requirement that initiatives deal with just one subject.
Even without the measure on the November ballot, Colorado voters are likely to remain at the center of the nation's boisterous immigration debate. The contentious issue could be a factor in competitive elections here for governor, Congress and control of the Legislature.
"It's an issue that kind of exploded here," says Katy Atkinson, a Republican consultant in Denver. "This will still be an issue, especially in federal races and the governor's race."
Dick Lamm, a former three-term governor who was helping lead the group pushing the initiative, Defend Colorado Now, called the ruling "outrageous judicial activism." He conceded that the chances of resurrecting the measure this year "are dim."
Federico Pena, a former Denver mayor who chairs the group opposing the measure, Keep Colorado Safe, hailed the ruling as "a victory for all of Colorado." Pena, who was a Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration, said Hispanics in Colorado "feel under attack."
Hispanic influence in Colorado is longstanding, dating to land grants issued by Spain, when it controlled southern Colorado as part of its New Mexico Territory. The land-grant system was continued by Mexico after it won independence from Spain in 1821. Land grants fostered early immigration from Mexico, particularly in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley.
Today, immigration is a major issue here for several reasons:
- The state's Hispanic population is growing - up to 19 percent in 2004 from 5.8 percent in 1980, according to the Census. Colorado has been a magnet because of economic opportunity and "a very strong multi-generational Hispanic base," Pena said.
- Two national leaders in the drive to crack down on illegal immigration hail from Colorado: U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican and a high-profile spokesman for tougher measures, and Lamm, co-director of a public policy institute at the University of Denver who has long argued that illegal immigration depresses U.S. wages.
- A history of tension includes a 2002 ballot effort to end bilingual education and the 2005 murder of a Denver police officer, allegedly by an illegal immigrant from Mexico who will stand trial in September.
The ballot measure would have limited the "provision of non-emergency services" by state and local governments to U.S. citizens and immigrants lawfully residing here. It would not apply to federally mandated services such as public education and emergency medical care, or major state services such as welfare and food stamps that illegal immigrants already cannot receive.
Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder says that even without the ballot measure, "immigration will still be an issue. Whether or not it is front and center is yet to be seen."
In November, Colorado voters decide who will replace Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who can't run again because of term limits. Also at stake is whether Democrats keep control of the Legislature, which they captured in 2004 for the first time in 40 years. There's an open U.S. House seat now held by Rep. Bob Beauprez, a Republican who is running for governor.
Democratic candidate for governor Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, opposed the ballot initiative, calling it a "symbolic" response to a problem that can only be solved in Washington. Beauprez, his most likely opponent in the November election, favored it. Beauprez also voted for the tough House bill passed in December that would make illegal immigration a felony and emphasizes border security.
Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst who is non-partisan, says immigration "poses tricky dynamics to both candidates, but is a slightly greater challenge to Ritter." Blue-collar Democrats could defect to the GOP if they perceive Beauprez as tougher on immigration, he said.
Ritter predicts many voters will see immigration as a federal issue with no connection to state races. Nonetheless, he says, "it will be part of the conversation" and could pose problems for all Republican candidates.
The death of the ballot initiative should lead to a more decorous debate on immigration, says political consultant Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, lead plaintiff in the suit decided Monday. "Now we can have an educated, rational discussion about how we find real solutions," he says.