DENVER – Much has been made of former Bush Administration official Condoleezza Rice and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer’s suggestions that Republicans must soften their rhetoric on the issue of illegal immigration or face electoral consequences.
As Democrats prepare to push for sweeping immigration reforms, the mainstream media has been quick to cite the statements of such beltway luminaries as indications that a Republican flip-flop on the issue is forthcoming.
But Republicans aren’t the only political party undergoing an extreme makeover on the controversial issue of immigration.
Just a few short years ago in Colorado, Democrats too were leading the legislative charge against illegal immigration – a fact that has been largely absent from most media reporting on the subject.
Colorado’s mainstream media rarely describes the coming year’s fight over same-sex union legislation without describing its unceremonious death in the past. But a TCO review of recent news related to the debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students failed to uncover a single occasion in which reports mentioned that a Democrat-controlled Colorado legislature was responsible for enacting the state law that bars illegal aliens from receiving most public benefits.
Based on coverage of the in-state tuition debate, few Coloradans would guess that just over six years ago, Colorado State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D-Denver), and State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald (D-Golden) joined forces to pass an illegal immigration enforcement bill that was described in the Washington Post as “the toughest in the nation.”
So strong was the public demand for stricter immigration laws at the time that even the progressive Bell Policy Center couldn’t bring itself to oppose Romanoff and Fitz-Gerald’s far-reaching ban on taxpayer assistance for illegal immigrants.
In fact, Romanoff and Fitz-Gerald’s bill counted among its supporters such liberal stalwarts as then-State Representative and current Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) and then-Rep. Terrance Carroll (D-Denver) – who currently serves as a trustee at Metro State College, where he has been an outspoken advocate for illegal alien tuition discounts.
While the role of Democrats in stiffening Colorado’s anti-illegal alien laws has long since faded from media headlines in Denver, it was front and center three years ago during the contested Democratic primary for U.S. Senate between Romanoff and Michael Bennet.
“[Romanoff] voted to prohibit in-state tuition to undocumented students,” Bennet backer Ricardo Martinez of Padres Unidos told Lynn Bartels of The Denver Post back in 2009.
“It was [Joan] Fitz-Gerald who pushed for it, and Andrew [Romanoff] just went along for party unity,” countered Polly Baca, a Romanoff supporter.
Left-wing blog Colorado Pols described the Democrat infighting on immigration as “[O]ne of the most dramatic moments in Romanoff’s tenure as Speaker of the Colorado House.” Pols went on to question whether or not legislative Democrats’ tougher line on immigration was a smart political move for the party.
“Opinions vary on the political value of [the illegal immigration] special session,” Pols said. “[S]ome say (and we tend to agree) that it successfully defanged a major GOP plank going into the 2006 elections, others say that the cost in terms of harm to the relationship with Latino voters was not worth outflanking the Republicans…”
The progressive left’s attempt to recast itself on illegal immigration in recent years hasn’t just been limited to the Democratic Party. Individual Democrat legislators, like Fitz-Gerald for example, have quietly moved to rebrand themselves.
Fitz-Gerald, who by some accounts was the driving force behind passage of the restrictive anti-illegal alien measure in Colorado, has since moved on to head the Washington, DC-based advocacy group America Votes. Described as the nerve center of progressive grassroots organizations nationally, the group spends huge sums of undisclosed campaign cash influencing voter behavior on behalf of liberal interest groups – listing the pro-amnesty Hispanic Institute Advocacy Project, as well as labor unions like the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union among its partners.
In her new role with America Votes, Fitz-Gerald spends much of her time and effort opposing efforts to improve the integrity of elections, such as voter ID laws.
“Voter ID bills are attempting to solve a non-existent problem,” Fitz-Gerald told a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in September 2011, sounding a much different tone than she did as in 2006 as Senate President.
Some say Fitz-Gerald’s new role is ironic, considering she is barely a half-dozen years removed from her leading role in crafting one of the toughest laws against illegal immigration in the nation.
“It’s reminiscent of the Democrats flip-flop on civil rights in the 1960′s,” said State Senator Greg Brophy (R-Wray). “They went from destroying the effort to taking credit for civil rights in one big flop. Anything to win elections.”
Ex-legislators aren’t the only Democrats trying to downplay the previous tough-on-immigration stand that was politically en vogue as recently as few years ago.
After being blasted by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo during the gubernatorial campaign for running a “sanctuary city” as Mayor of Denver, Governor John Hickenlooper tried to walk a fine line on illegal immigration after being sworn in.
For example, Hickenlooper initially declined to weigh in on the question of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, distancing himself from a decision made by Metro State College’s trustees to offer the discount. At the time, Hickenlooper said that he respected an opinion issued by Attorney General John Suthers, which concluded that the college exceeded its authority in offering the reduced tuition rates to illegal immigrants.
Since the November election, however, Hickenlooper has joined the growing chorus of Democrats who have pivoted on the issue. Once firmly on the fence in the in-state tuition battle, the governor is now among the idea’s loudest cheerleaders, plugging the contentious proposal during his State of the State address last week.
Hickenlooper’s conversion on the in-state tuition issue is a microcosm of the broader evolution of the Democratic Party’s top brass on illegal immigration — an evolution almost entirely suppressed from the political narrative by Colorado’s leading media voices.
“It seems when the left does a 180 on an issue, it’s because they have evolved or found new information. When the right does it, it’s a flip flop,” said the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara. “A Democrat stops smoking, he is bravely embracing a new position. When a Republican does, she flip-flopped.”
The sea change among Democrats on immigration in recent years underscores both the volatility and unpredictable nature of the debate over the last decade. But it also adds an interesting layer to the upcoming fight in the state legislature over whether to provide public benefits like discounted tuition to illegal immigrants.
That’s because the policies Democrats will be seeking to reverse won’t be policies authored by Republican hard liners. They will be seeking to reverse policies that were authored, passed and touted by Democrats– including some who are still serving under the gold dome.