Colorado candidate's town shapes immigration view

AP News
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Posted: Oct 18, 2014 12:00 PM
Colorado candidate's town shapes immigration view

YUMA, Colo. (AP) — Andrea Hermosillo rode for hours to protest at her neighbor's office.

The high school junior lives only a few blocks from GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner in Yuma, a small town on Colorado's high plains.

But this summer, Hermosillo went to the congressman's main office, in a city closer to Denver in Gardner's sprawling eastern Colorado district, for a sit-in to demand that he support granting citizenship to many of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

"It was kind of weird, but it felt we had to be there," Hermosillo said. "It's important he know that it's people in his town who feel this way."

Bill Breithauer also lives in Yuma. The 72-year-old retired farmer has known Gardner since the two-term congressman was a child.

As Breithauer nursed a coffee at Yuma's central gathering spot, a restaurant called The Main Event, he made it clear that he thinks what Hermosillo wants is an outrage.

"How are they going to give them citizenship if they don't speak the language and they're up to no good?" Breithauer asked. "Cory's all right. He knows what's what."

This is the riddle for Gardner in his race against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the only state among the dozen or so in play this year with both a competitive Senate race and a sizable population of Hispanic voters.

Yuma is Colorado in a microcosm.

The town, like the state, has been transformed by Latin American immigrants who have arrived to open businesses, labor in fields and hog farms, and take seats in public school classrooms.

They have been welcomed — the Yuma town council in 2010 urged Congress to pass the kind of legislation Hermosillo demands — and met with suspicion.

Udall has called on President Barack Obama to limit deportations of people living illegally in the U.S., and he voted for a Senate bill that eventually would have granted them citizenship.

Gardner has straddled the fence.

He opposes the Senate bill, but speaks warmly of immigrants. It's an indication of how he has been shaped by his town and his place in a party where supporting an immigration overhaul is a political risk.

Gardner regularly tells a story of meeting a high school valedictorian who was waiting tables at a small-town diner in his district. He told her she had a bright future; she told him she was brought into the country illegally and couldn't go to college.

The following year, Gardner passed through the town again. The girl was still there, still waiting tables.

"If you're looking at the way our criminal justice system works, we don't charge a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old with the same crime as adults," Gardner said. "I have known them for a very long time, whether it's just the people I've gotten to know through living in the community or its people my daughter goes to school with."

Yet Gardner opposed legislation that would have let those young immigrants live in the U.S. legally. He did change course this summer and voted against efforts to repeal a program that lets some who came to the U.S. illegally as children stay in the country.

He has called for increased border security, a guest worker program and citizenship for people brought here illegally who serve in the military, but hasn't gotten more specific.

"Cory Gardner has made the calculation that he can say a few nice things, fool enough voters and get away with this," said Patty Kupfer of America's Voice, which supports the Senate bill.

Udall has hammered Gardner on the issue, even though in 2005, when immigration played less favorably in Colorado, Udall voted for a Republican bill that would have made being in the country illegally a felony.

"He's said we should take immigration reform in steps," Udall said at a recent debate. "Well, he hasn't taken one step to move immigration to the finish line."

Gardner's combination of warmth and hesitation make sense at The Main Event in Yuma, a town of 3,200 that began to change in the 1990s as Mexicans from Nicolas Bravo, in northern Chihuahua state, were drawn by the area's new hog farms and dairies.

On a recent morning, half-a-dozen longtime friends grumbled about the amount of Spanish they hear and the idea people can enter the country illegally. But they acknowledged that local businesses depend on immigrants and that most of the town's new residents, legal or not, are good people.

Said Bob Seward, 88, "Yuma would look like a ghost town without the Spanish or Mexican people here."

Yuma's immigrants have lobbied Gardner for years.

In 2005, Margo Ebersole held a meeting for teenage girls at a community center. Though Ebersole expected to talk birth control, the girls wanted to discuss college. Under state law at the time, they could not win scholarships to public universities and had to pay higher, out-of-state tuition if they were living in the country illegally.

The girls called themselves Las Estrellas — The Stars, in Spanish — and have set about trying to win over the town. Gardner always seemed sympathetic, said Navil Babonoyaba, 16. She followed Gardner to town halls and tried to pin him down, writing questions on notecards so she was prepared.

"He would answer them, but not directly," she said. "He'd try to go around them."

Ebersole sees Gardner at church, but also hasn't had any luck.

In a private meeting with Gardner, she told him of how her husband, who came to the U.S. illegally as a child, had to return to Mexico and missed the birth of their second child.

"He can be really nice and polite and agreeable, but not where we wish he could be," Ebersole said.

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Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/nickriccardi