Author: - November 21, 2008 - Updated: November 21, 2008
By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
In January, the University of Denver Strategic Issues Program will convene its fourth nonpartisan panel of citizens to examine an issue of long-term importance to the people of Colorado. In the past they’ve tackled Colorado’s fiscal issues, water rights, and, most recently, conflicts in Colorado’s Constitution.
Now a 21-member DU panel will tackle perhaps its thorniest issue yet: immigration.
Many of the trappings of academia will be involved. The discourse is meant to be fluid, and the agenda is set by the panel members. But although the proceedings aren’t apt to sound much like Capitol hearings, the panels are meant to be more than a mere academic exercise.
Subjects of scrutiny by the Strategic Issues Program are selected with an eye to the possibility that government action could result from the panel’s work. For example, following the constitutional panel in 2007, the Legislature referred Referendum O to this year’s ballot and relied heavily on the recommendations of the DU panel in writing it.
We sat down with Dr. Jim Griesemer, the Strategic Issue Program’s director, to find out why he chose immigration as the panel’s new topic, even though it’s the economy that’s in the forefront of public attention. Dr. Griesemer also spoke about what the panel was likely to tackle next and whether Congressman Tom Tancredo would be asked to speak.
Some answers have been shortened or modified for clarity.
1. Before we get to immigration, I wanted to start with Referendum O. That’s something that came out of your last panel. It lost narrowly at the ballot box on Nov. 4. Were you surprised by that? Were you disappointed?
The goal of the Strategic Issues Program is twofold. One is to raise the visibility of an issue. And the second is to inform the debate. The goal of the program is not to advocate for a particular position — not even for the panel’s position. We were very pleased that the Legislature took up the subject.
On a personal level, I thought the Legislature did a good job, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t passed. But it came very close — far closer than most structural proposals to change the Constitution — so our hope is that, over time, the Legislature will continue to look at it.
Reports are really done with a longterm horizon. We don’t pick an issue that just happens to be the hot issue today. We try to pick an issue that we think is important in the long run. And so I would be very surprised if people don’t go back to our panel’s reports on the Constitution. Because the problems the panel identified aren’t going to change. The Constitution has all these types of conflicts within it. We have this plethora of proposals to amend it. We reconfigure the Constitution kind of willy-nilly, and once you change something, you can’t unchange it very easily at all.
2. I know that part of your charge in forming these panels is to look at issues that are both timely and at a critical point. And I saw a poll recently from Ciruli and Associates that said in 2006, immigration was the biggest issue for Colorado voters. In 2006, it was biggest issue for 28 percent of the population. In 2008, though, only 7 percent of the population thought immigration was the biggest issue, and 29 percent said the economy was the biggest issue. So it seems like a bit of an odd time to address immigration.
We’re not trying to hit, necessarily, the issue of the day. Our economic issues, that our country and our state are facing, are overwhelming everything else — and probably rightly so.
But what we try to do is pick an issue that we think is fundamentally important to the state of Colorado and its citizens. And I think that there’s no question that immigration is important. I’m equally certain that even though we’ve got other things to attend to right now, like the economy, immigration will return as a major issue. So, we’re not just trying to say, “Oh boy, we’ve got the hottest issue today.”
3. What do you think the scope of the panel is going to be? Are you going to look at both illegal and legal immigration? And do you think any particular policies could be implemented because of your work?
Part of the answer is “I’m not sure,” because the panel members themselves have the freedom to come at this as they wish. But I’ll tell you what I think is likely. As I’ve looked at the issue, one of the real problems is that it’s so multifaceted. To some folks, it’s a law-enforcement issue. To some folks, it’s a social issue, or an economic issue, or a racial issue. There are all these facets, and people tend to look at it through one lens.
I think our panel will probably try to look at it through many lenses and see how the pieces are connected.
Whether or not the panel will come up with very specific, Colorado-specific recommendations in each area, I don’t know. That’s something that we’ll find out six or eight months from now.
4. On CNN, just before the election, Barack Obama was asked what his top five priorities would be in the White House. And immigration wasn’t among them. Do you think this issue really can be addressed in Colorado if it’s not a priority in Washington D.C.?
There are a lot of things we can do in terms of policies. Arizona, for example, has enacted very stringent policies for employers about ensuring they’re hiring documented workers. So states actually have some important steps they can take on their own.
But there’s no question that the national and state dimensions of this are closely intertwined. It’s both a state and national issue, and I’m pretty sure the panel will want to look at it from both of those perspectives. And you know, what is a top issue today, versus tomorrow, changes over time. I can’t imagine that immigration won’t get back on the national agenda as a high priority. I just don’t know when it will happen.
5. Do you think it might help that there’s not so much passion around the issue of immigration right now? For instance, Lou Dobbs isn’t on TV screaming about immigration every single night anymore.
That’s a very interesting perspective, and it might help us. Our goal in the university is to look at things in a thoughtful, rational way and to try and set aside the passions of the moment. To the extent that it’s not a front-page, hot-button issue night after night might help, actually.
6. Obama received a much greater percentage of the vote from the Hispanic population than John Kerry did in 2004. Do you think the Hispanic population is going to feel like Obama owes them some action on the immigration issue because of that?
I don’t know. But one of the things we’re going to emphasize is that while the Hispanic issue is very important in Colorado — and, indeed, nationally — the question of immigration is not just a question about Mexico. It’s a question about getting engineers and scientists from India. It is truly a global question. We need not only laborers to help pick peaches in Colorado, we also need software engineers for our high-tech industry, which is a big part of Colorado’s economy.
7. I saw an estimate that the unemployment rate in this country would probably hit 7.5 percent by the end of the year. Do you think the public is going to have an appetite for new immigrants — legal or illegal — with so many citizens out of work?
I think that’s the way the question would be asked by most people, but I think it’s a more complicated question than that. It is very likely that as the economy goes down, the draw on immigrants will go down. After all, if there aren’t jobs, you don’t have much motivation to leave wherever your home is and come to the U.S. So the declining employment opportunities are probably going to reduce the supply.
8. Gov. Bill Ritter has called for a panel to look at law enforcement issues and immigration. It came in response to the tragedy in Aurora, where an illegal immigrant with a lengthy record of misdemeanors killed a 3-year-old boy and two women in an auto accident. Ritter’s panel is going to be finished meeting in December, just before you start meeting in January. How do you think their work is going to affect what you do? And how is your charge different from theirs?
I think they’re very different. Law enforcement is the principle focus of that panel. We will be receiving that group’s report in the spring, so we will have the benefit of their thinking. The governor, for his own reasons — and the tragedy in Aurora seemed to be the thing that kicked that off — put together this panel to look at the law enforcement issues, and I think that’s an altogether good thing. What our panel will be looking at is the much broader question of immigration. But we will certainly be informed by what that panel does, and they have already agreed to come and present to us.
9. Do you know which experts will be addressing the DU panel?
We’re going to try and get them from all over the country. I do know that Governor Ritter will be making a presentation, and so will Governor Bill Owens, Governor Dick Lamm, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and U.S. Attorney Troy Eid. So we’ll have a number of public officials. We’ll also have people from some interest groups, who have a particular viewpoint. And we’re working now with universities to bring in a number of leading academics. The panel will receive information beginning in January, all the way through the end of May. So we’re going to bring in a lot of people.
10. One person who wasn’t on that list, who will be having some free time starting in January, is Tom Tancredo. He’s obviously the best-known voice on this issue from Colorado, and one of the best-known nationally. He ran for president on this issue. Do you think you’ll have him come and present? I know you want a dispassionate look at things…
But dispassionate doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear people with passionate views on all sides of it. Obviously, the panel members themselves, we want people who haven’t figured out the answer, who have an open mind. But we want to hear from people who have particular points of view and we will be inviting a pretty good cross-section of people. We’re still in the process of trying to schedule dates and speakers.
11. So you might give Tancredo a call, then?
The panel’s first meeting will be Thursday, Jan. 8. Scheduled speakers include U.S. Attorney Troy Eid, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and Ann Allott, an immigration attorney. Meetings are open to the public, but the DU Strategic Issues Program asks that you RSVP. This can be done at www.DU.edu/issues/meeting.html
The panel will consist of: Don Ament, former Colorado Secretary of Agriculture; Kathy Archuleta, senior policy adviser, Denver Mayor’s Office; Polly Baca, president & CEO, Baca Barragan Perez & Associates; Richard Ballantine, publisher, Durango Herald; Barbara Bauer, president, Global Sight Partners; Linda Childears; president & CEO, Daniels Fund; Pete Coors, chairman & CEO, Coors Brewing Company; Carolyn Daniels, partner, Holme Roberts & Owen LLP; Jim Griesemer, director, Strategic Issues Program; Steve Halstedt, managing director, Centennial Ventures; Del Hock, retired CEO & chairman, Public Service Company of Colorado; Richard Koeppe, retired superintendent of Cherry Creek schools; Wayne Murdy, former chairman, Newmont Mining Corp.; Ved Nanda, vice provost for internationalization, University of Denver; Kay Norton, president, University of Northern Colorado; Kim Patmore, former executive vice president & CFO, First Data Corp; Dick Robinson, CEO, Robinson Dairy; Marguerite Salazar, president and CEO, Valley-Wide Health Systems; David Trickett, president, Iliff School of Theology; Jerry Williams, associate research professor, University of Colorado Denver; Ron Williams, president, Gary-Williams Energy Corporation