Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Immigration policy needs help from Feds, experts say

As a nation struggles with immigration policy, leaders must beware unintended consequences and grapple with an array of potentially conflicting views and needs, experts warned University of Denver Strategic Issues Program panel members at a meeting Feb. 26.

Don Mares, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said as a result of gridlock on federal immigration reform, states have stepped into the gap. As a result, business owners are often left confused and with a lack of workers. Even some legal immigrants are reluctant to come to Colorado because of its reputation of being tough on immigrant workers.

States have been left paying a disproportionate share of the costs for immigration while the federal government gets to oversee how the borders are protected and who gets into the country, noted Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures’  Immigrant Policy Project.

Since the 1990s, traditional immigration entry points such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have been supplanted. Immigrants now spread out across the country, Morse said, and the Rocky Mountain region is one area experiencing the boom. States have been forced to shoulder the expense of education, law enforcement and health care for many immigrants; yet of the tax money contributed by immigrants — legal and illegal — about two-thirds goes directly to the federal government, not cities, counties or states, Morse said.

“Everyone’s asking the crystal ball question,” she said. “When are we going to get federal immigration reform, because that’s what we really need.”

Mares said that without federal rules, states are making their own. His office has to monitor, for example, some 170,000 businesses in Colorado to make sure they comply with new state laws that require them to record how they checked on a worker’s immigration status. The result is confusing, he said.

“We really need the federal government to step up to the plate to fix this,” Mares said. And without clear laws, immigrants — even legal and highly-skilled, sought-after ones —  are avoiding some states and having difficulty finding visas to work for employers who desperately need them.

“There’s something wrong with that picture if it’s having that impact,” he said.

The Strategic Issues Program panel, chaired by Jim Griesemer, is a nonpartisan panel made up of accomplished citizens from around the state and across the political spectrum. From January through May, panel members are hearing multiple perspectives from more than 30 local and national immigration experts. Over the summer, they will attempt to craft a consensus-based, nonpartisan policy framework for immigration reform. The panel is expected to release its recommendations in early December.

The panel meets next on March 12. Guest speakers will be Ralph Christie, CEO and president of Merrick & Co., and former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, co-director of DU’s Institute for Public Policy Studies. Future guest speakers will include former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Peter Weir, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

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