Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirSeptember 25, 201710min101

Some say nothing really prepares you for elective office, but Kevin Van Winkle might disagree. The youthful, second-term lawmaker, who represents Douglas County’s District 43 in the Colorado House of Representatives, served for years as a legislative staffer before his election in 2014. Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican, learned a lot from his time working behind the scenes with legislators — and is now putting his experience to use serving an area of DougCo where was born and raised, in a district previously held by former Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty. And Van Winkle certainly seems to know his way around. In addition to his regular committee work at the Capitol, he sits on the Legislative Board of Ethics, the board of the Colorado Channel and the Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Pension Reform Commission.


Paul Klee, The GazettePaul Klee, The GazetteSeptember 24, 20176min4150

BUFFALO — Perhaps no NFL team embodies the expanding political divide in America more than the Denver Broncos. Balanced by a highly paid linebacker who was one of the first players to kneel during the national anthem and a front office with strong conservative leanings, some of the Broncos joined protests across the league in Week 3 on Sunday.


Even as he announced the results of Colorado’s latest initiative aimed at curbing voter fraud, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams conceded what the data didn’t show.

The state’s elections system, he said, is anything but broken.

“People in Colorado should feel good about the integrity of the state’s elections,” Williams said, offering an assessment sharply at odds with President Donald Trump’s repeated, unsupported assertion that last year’s presidential election was tainted by millions of bogus votes, presumably the result of nationwide dysfunction. Said Williams: “I have seen no evidence of fraud approaching those numbers.”

The comments illustrate a balancing act for Republicans seeking new voter restrictions in the Trump era: On the one hand they continue to publicize the hunt for bogus ballots while seeking changes in the law. On the other, they must devote air time to rebutting Trump’s rhetoric that fraud is widespread – potentially muting the alarms they’re raising.

Despite that tension between the party and its president, critics say that voter fraud initiatives like the one touted by Williams this month feed a drumbeat over an issue they say is exaggerated for political effect – part of what they call an effort to suppress left-leaning voters.

“The study illustrates how extraordinarily rare voter fraud is,” said Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause, which bills itself as a nonpartisan government watchdog.

An examination of 11.5 million voter records between the five states uncovered 112 instances of possible improper voting in the 2016 presidential election. Ten people who voted in Colorado are suspected of casting two ballots within the state, while 38 people who voted in Colorado may also have voted in one of the other four states.

The cases were referred for additional investigation and have yet to yield allegations of fraud – leaving open the possibility of administrative mix-ups and unintentional oversights.

The study looked at possible instances of double voting in states involved in Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit that says it is focused on improving the accuracy of Colorado’s voting rolls.

Williams is not the first high-ranking Colorado official to make efforts to combat voter fraud. In 2013, after former Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler asked prosecutors to investigate 155 suspected cases of voter fraud, four people in Arapahoe County were charged for allegedly casting delinquent ballots – leading 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler to conclude the problem wasn’t widespread. Reaching that verdict took six investigators and a combined 300 hours looking at the 41 names Gessler sent them.

After the 2016 presidential election, the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office looked into hundreds of reports of suspicious ballots from the local Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Local prosecutors filed charges against two people, both of whom pleaded guilty to voting in the name of a dead relative.

They were among eight cases across Colorado involving allegations of double voting in 2016 and 2017, according to records supplied by the Colorado Judicial Branch.

Williams sought to distance the latest effort from Trump’s controversial voting commission, widely criticized as a political snipe hunt.

“It had nothing to do with any claims by people who sought recounts, or claims by any candidates, successful or not,” Williams said, without mentioning Trump’s name. “It’s totally unrelated to that.”

Holding up preliminary results hinting at fraud helps reinforce a sense that ballot boxes are stacked with illegal votes, bolstering the case for voting restrictions, critics argue.

“The strategy is to make an example of someone who made a mistake and in no way deliberately undermined the rights of others or threatened the integrity of the electoral process,” Lorraine Minnite, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden who studies the issue, said in an email.

The small number of possible illegal votes raises questions over the resources being poured into the issue, said Seth Masket, chair of the University of Denver Political Science Department.

“It’s consistent with a number of efforts we’ve seen, largely from Republican leaders both nationally and in various states, that there’s an ongoing concern with the integrity of the vote and worries that people may be cheating, people may be voting more than once,” he said. “Of course, there’s very little evidence to back that up.

“This seems to be a lot of effort expended toward preventing very few crimes.”

Williams said the study involved no additional expense to his office beyond staff time. He defended his office’s participation, saying that patrolling the state’s voter rolls, and preventing double voting, is a core part of his mission.

“Any time you have someone voting illegally that, first, can make a difference in an election. And second, and equally as important, is it affects people’s confidence in the elections process. We want to ensure that we have a process that people can feel confident in.”

Despite Williams’ defense of Colorado’s elections, he said he is in favor of restricting the ability of people without photo IDs to register on the day of an election, arguing that vetting should be required in advance. He said he wants to strike a balance between ferreting out illegal activity and ensuring that voting rights are preserved.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said the ERIC study, like similar efforts, shows that existing laws are adequate to address the problem of voting irregularities.

“It really just proves our point that individual voter fraud – one vote at a time voter fraud – is very rare and has no impact on the outcome of elections, as contrasted with voter suppression efforts, which affects thousands and thousands of votes at a time and does have an impact on elections,” said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado.


The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this article.


Erin PraterErin PraterSeptember 24, 201715min1050

A plastic card bearing red, white and blue flags helped Elmer Peña Peña buy a house, work for a mattress company and pay taxes on those wages.

He followed almost all of America’s rules despite breaking the law to get here.

Then he received orders from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return to El Salvador.

He never considered obeying the deportation order.

Peña Peña, 37, a married father of three, recently became the first person known to seek protection from ICE at a Colorado Springs church. In doing so, he turned to a movement pitting certain religious leaders against President Donald Trump and the immigration crackdown he promised in his campaign for the White House.

Peña Peña spends his days shaded by light filtering through 19th-century stained glass at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, roughly 70 miles from his family in Aurora. He sits in the foyer, adjusting the rabbit ears on a television tuned to Telemundo and scrolling on his smartphone.

He whiles away hours reading his Bible, downloading audio devotions in his native language and scratching at coloring books with his 3-year-old son’s Crayola set. He sleeps in the reverend’s cluttered office as repairs are made to the church’s flood-damaged basement — where he hopes to take up residence in the next month.

He’s grateful for this sanctuary provided by the goodwill of strangers. And yet, to him, it feels a lot like jail.

In Aurora, his wife works and pays the mortgage. His two other American-born children and stepson attend school.

“There’s times where I want to just bust out running out of here, to be free,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter. “This effort (to avoid deportation) is for my wife and my children, and our home. I don’t want them to be out on the street.”

He isn’t the only unhappy person.

One of the Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition’s members, First United Methodist Church, dropped out shortly after Peña Peña sought refuge.

The decision came amid tensions at First United Methodist, where several congregants voiced concerns about the church taking part in the politically charged issue.

While some supported the move, others feared legal blowback.

Many argued against offering safe harbor on the false assumption that only people who have committed felonies are facing deportation, said the Rev. Tiffany Keith, First United Methodist’s associate pastor.

Instead, the church will host classes and dinner discussions on the nation’s immigration policy, the work of immigration agents and the hardships that immigrants face.

“I knew this church was not at a point where it was ready to be all in,” Keith said.

The same tensions have yet to surface among the coalition’s three remaining members: All Souls, First Congregational Church and the Colorado Springs Friends Meeting, a Quaker institution.

If anything, attendance at the Rev. Dr. Nori Rost’s worship services is on the rise.

“We believe that this is a justice issue, and no human is illegal,” said Rost, All Souls’ parish minister.


Fleeing death threats

Peña Peña faced deportation before.

The first time came days after crossing the border illegally in 2001. Immigration agents caught him within two days and swiftly sent him back.

Back in his hometown of Ilobasco, El Salvador, he faced death threats from regional gangs because he wouldn’t join either the one where he lived or the one where he worked.

“That’s why I came back to the United States, because I couldn’t survive in El Salvador,” he said.

He scrounged together $1,500 — most of which came from a cousin living in Aurora — and paid a “coyote” for passage into the United States.

He joined a friend from El Salvador and 10 strangers from Mexico. Crossing the border proved easy, he said — the trouble came in El Paso, Texas.

A half hour after the coyote left them at a nondescript ranch, immigration agents swooped in. Only Peña Peña and his friend escaped by crawling through a hole in the kitchen to the roof, he said.

Once the agents left, Peña Peña ran. They didn’t stop until dawn.

“We thought we were going to die, we were so cold,” Peña Peña said.

A local man later provided safe quarters in his van, and a passing trucker gave them a lift to Houston. A friend then drove him to San Antonio, where his cousin arranged for a ride to Aurora.

Several times — in the van, at a highway weigh station — agents almost discovered them. Each time, they escaped capture.


Raising a family

Life slowed in suburban Colorado.

He got married and had three children. He took any job he could — building houses, painting houses, cooking in an Indian buffet, landscaping at a golf course. He got a couple of traffic tickets and paid them without hassle.

“The boss taught us how to play some golf,” he said, laughing.

But in 2012, a decision to drive straight through a right turn-only lane nearly forced him once more to El Salvador.

The Aurora police officer who pulled him over refused to write a ticket, despite his pleas to be cited and released, he said.

“He told me right away he was going to deport me,” Peña Peña said. “I told him I have a family, I have a wife, I have children. Give me an opportunity to pay for the ticket for the infraction.

“He said I did not have the right to ask for that. He acted as though he was ICE.”

The officer turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and he said he spent the next six months in detention seeking political asylum.

The details of his release are unclear — even he is slightly confused how he won release.

Ever since then, however, he has applied for stays of deportation — essentially, one-year delays in being forced back to El Salvador. The process, for which he paid $2,000 annually for an attorney’s help, became routine. Doing so opened the door to getting a mortgage and a job at Simmons mattress company.

He earned about $37,000 a year working 12 hours a day, six days a week — barely enough to top the federal poverty level for a household of six.

And he was content.

He even applied for — and received — visas for his parents to visit from El Salvador.

“They said I live like a prince — like a president,” Peña Peña said, his eyes welling with tears. “Because life is very poor over there.”


System no longer predictable

Despite years of routine approvals, three months ago immigration agents denied his latest stay of deportation — part of an emerging trend under the Trump administration, local immigration attorneys say.

Trump campaigned on the promise to crack down on undocumented immigrants, referring to those from Mexico as “bad hombres,” criminals and rapists. Along with taking jobs from Americans, Trump has asserted that they commit violent crimes and have made the U.S. awash in illegal drugs.

Since his election, though, Trump has vacillated on his pledge to make Mexico pay for a wall along its border with the U.S. and has debated granting “good” undocumented immigrants leniency.

Before his election, the stay process was completely discretionary — often giving preference to people with compelling reasons to remain in the United States, such as American-born children. Anyone with drunken driving, domestic violence or other serious convictions were typically denied.

“There’s no run-of-the-mill situation where ICE is required to grant a stay,” said Stephanie Izaguirre, a Colorado Springs immigration attorney who has offered guidance to the coalition.

“One of the really good things that President Obama did was they kind of laid out some criteria,” Izaguirre added. “In general, if you don’t have any of these quote-unquote bad things in your history, your stay will probably be approved.

“That made the system predictable, and so that made it easier for people to understand.”

That predictability ended with Trump’s inauguration, which also heralded a return of the sanctuary church movement, said Eric Pavri, a Catholic Charities of Central Colorado immigration attorney.

The concept arose from a Reagan-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy dissuading agents from conducting operations in a few “sensitive locations,” including hospitals, schools and churches. Back then, churches gave sanctuary to refugees fleeing violence in Central America.

“Now, since the election of Donald Trump, churches around the country have been sort of picking up that banner,” Pavri said, who has also advised the coalition.

The “sensitive locations” policy remains in place, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s website.

The agency did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The policy isn’t law, meaning the agency could always reverse course and make arrests inside churches, such as All Souls, attorneys say. But they’d still need a warrant signed by a federal judge to do so.

Taking no chances, All Souls’ doors have been plastered with signs warning immigration agents not to enter, unless they have such a warrant. And church volunteers carefully vet each person entering the building.

But agents know Peña Peña is there.

The coalition immediately informed Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers of their guest’s presence — a tactic to guard against the federal charge of harboring an illegal alien, Pavri said. They can’t be harboring, he said, if they don’t keep it a secret.

Among the three remaining churches, only All Souls agreed to host immigrants. They’ve since received one emailed threat of “death and destruction” that Rost waved off, just like past threats against the church.

“The only thing those emails have in common is bad spelling,” Rost said.

The church plans to shelter one family at a time. People with recent violent criminal records are not offered refuge, though decades-old convictions can be considered on a case-by-case basis, Rost said.

Visitors can stay for three months, after which coalition leaders will review the case and decide whether to grant an extension.

Whether Peña Peña can bear to stay that long is in question.

“Essentially, he’s under house arrest,” Rost said. “It can take a toll on a person emotionally to feel so housebound or churchbound. So sometimes people choose to leave, and that’s their choice.”


Lumping good with bad

Peña Peña was more emphatic.

“In a way, it’s even worse than house arrest, because in house arrest, you have your stuff at your place,” he said.

He fears that by not working, his family will lose their house. Financial help from a friend is expected to run out at the end of the year, Peña Peña said.

He pleaded for Trump to deport hardened criminals, not him.

“There’s no security in my country,” he said. “And I think most people are looking for the opportunity to work and live. We want to work legally. And there are people who do bad things. There’s always good people and bad people.”

“The problem is the president right now is lumping good and bad together to send them out,” he said.

He dug once more into his wallet for another card — this time a driver’s license.

It would have come in handy five years ago when that Aurora police officer arrested him.

Back then, such licenses were unavailable. A state program offering them to undocumented immigrants did not exist.

That’s since changed — like so much else in Peña Peña’s life.

“Now I don’t have a chance to drive,” he says, chuckling at the irony. “I was trusting. I had my permit, I could drive.

“Now I have nothing.”


Tom RamstackTom RamstackSeptember 23, 20176min80
WASHINGTON — Colorado’s lawmakers and business leaders are adding their voices to a controversy over tax reform as Republicans prepare to announce their overhaul plan next week. Republicans say they need to simplify the tax code for a boost to the nation’s economy and job outlook. Some Democrats are concerned changing the tax code would […]

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