Bill to soften stance on sanctuary cities signals changing times

In the late 1990s, and with upticks around Sept. 11, 2001, immigration has figured prominently on Americans' minds. What began as concern seemed to morph to alarm tinged with outright racism and has now taken on a new hue: growing tolerance infused with pragmatism. The Colorado Legislature is using that latter palette in its immigration discussions during the 2013 session.

The Colorado House of Representatives on Monday voted for a measure that would rescind a 2006 law - passed during a special session at the height of anti-immigrant rhetoric and lawmaking in Colorado - requiring police in Colorado municipalities to report to federal immigration officials those suspected of being in the country illegally and forbidding local entities from passing so-called "sanctuary laws" that suspend that requirement for their employees. Supporters of House Bill 1258 argue that the 2006 measure was made mute by the Secure Communities initiative, which asks local law enforcement entities to cooperate with federal priorities by running arrestees' information through the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement database, cross-referencing against crime databases to help ICE identify dangerous illegal immigrant criminals and focus resources on deporting them. That program has drawn criticism itself, but it is a step closer to the right set of priorities for law enforcement: keeping dangerous criminals, regardless of immigration status, off of American streets. It is not perfect, but it is an improvement on the 2006 measure that HB 1258 would repeal.

Requiring law enforcement officers to report those they suspect of being in the country illegally sets a stage for institutionalized racism as well as discordant relationships between Spanish-speakers and law enforcement. Individuals historically targeted for their language or cultural signs associated with illegal immigrant populations are less likely to contact the police for help. That is a formula that can only harm individuals and undermine community cohesion and trust. The House was right to take a step back from that negative cycle, and if HB 1258 passes, cities can work to rebuild the critical relationships that may have frayed since 2006.

That is becoming increasingly possible across the country and in Colorado, as shifting political winds have awakened lawmakers to the importance of Latino voters. That alone has served to soften the nationalistic rhetoric that thinly masked racism in recent years and legislative positions are following suit. The Colorado Legislature's recent passage of a bill extending in-state college tuition to illegal immigrant Colorado high school students is a welcome example, as is the growing willingness among Democrats and Republicans to address comprehensive immigration reform. There is still some distance for Colorado Republicans to travel, though: Just one GOP representative voted for HB 1258, and three Republicans in the House and Senate, respectively, joined their Democratic colleagues in passing the in-state tuition bill.

There are few simple answers to the multi-faceted questions surrounding illegal immigration, but bringing a sense of pragmatism, fairness and humanism to the discussion will improve its chances for success. Never mind that it was political opportunity that has moved the discussion from the back burner. The opportunity has arrived and the Colorado Legislature is wasting no time in seizing it.