A bill that would protect state officials from participating in any unconstitutional federal programs aimed at monitoring or confining Coloradans sparked what the House Democratic caucus communications office called the “first real floor fight” of the legislative session.
The Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act, sponsored by Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, was drafted in reaction to the intense rhetoric of the Trump campaign, in which the candidate decried undocumented immigrants as criminals and vowed to ban and monitor Muslims in America — rhetoric that later manifested in the executive orders the president issued banning travel from Muslim countries and expanding the arrest and detention powers of immigration officials.
Salazar characterizes the bill as a states’ rights proposal. Critics have called it a “sanctuary” bill.
The debate on the House floor Wednesday was passionate and revealing.
Members barely addressed the states’ rights questions posed by the bill nor did they really consider the meaning of state power in an era of expanding federal authority.
They also failed to drill down into the nitty gritty of the bill. What exactly is the state of current law? Why is there no precedent in other states for the measure? What would Colorado residents gain from passing the bill? And what might be the harm?
There debate often turned on partisan flag planting.
Republicans proposed that the bill include a provision preventing the names of Colorado gun owners from being listed on any future national registry.
They also offered a series of amendments that would have rendered the protections offered by the bill applicable only to citizens and lawful residents.
Opponents of the bill clearly were operating on the belief that there might be legitimate national security reasons for the federal government eventually to act against foreign national residents of the state.
Rep. Phil Covarrubias, a Brighton Republican, on more than one occasion defended the round up and internment during World War II of Japanese residents, including citizens.
The amendments were batted away as either inapplicably “off-title” or contrary to the purpose of the bill.
Salazar mentioned news reports where undocumented victims of domestic abuse have been swept up by immigration officials at the police stations where they have come seeking help.
“Is this what we want to do now, exclude crime victims from the protections of the law?” Salazar said.
Over the course of more than three hours, supporters of the bill struggled and failed to persuade opponents to reflect upon the everyday experience of the laws that govern life in the United States. Murder, fraud, kidnapping, internment, whatever the crime, it is a crime regardless of whether or not the victims are undocumented. Robbing a newly arrived tourist on the subway is just as illegal as robbing the citizen who has been a neighbor for 30 years.
Democrats argued that the bill aims to protect Colorado from federal wrongdoing, not some of the people in Colorado, but all of the people here.
“There were citizens and permanent residents and non-citizens arrested after Pearl Harbor,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Commerce City, referring to the interned Japanese residents. “Should we have just protected the citizens there? None of them committed any crimes.”
“I think the opponents made a mess of the debate,” said Salazar afterward. “But what they said underlines a point: There are a lot of people out there who don’t know what the Constitution says. The ‘lawbreaker’ immigrants they keep referring to are endowed with our constitutional protections.”
Salazar was amazed that Rep. Yeulin Willett, a Republican from Grand Junction, called the bill a “pet project” of the sponsor.
“He should sit among the large immigrant communities here in Colorado, in a Muslim community here, and see if it feels like a pet project,” Salazar said. “Does he know how people are feeling around the country? They feel frightened.”
“I think Coloradans need to see how members can be out of touch, that those kind of comments they were making are way out of synch with life in Colorado in 2017. Those kinds of comments are offensive to people.”
Salazar’s bill has one more reading to pass in the Democratic-controlled House. But the debate Wednesday suggests the bill will lack supporters where it needs them in the Republican-controlled Senate.