A Republican congressman walks the tricky middle ground on immigration reform

Jan 29, 2018

In 2010, Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, largely comprising the western suburbs of Denver, was radically redrawn. And Republican Congressman Mike Coffman found himself no longer representing a deeply conservative district, but a liberal-leaning one with many immigrants from Asia, Africa and — especially — Latin America. 

So, Coffman got a tutor to study Spanish.    

“I’ve been learning,” says Coffman. “I studied in the past, but didn’t care. Had to do it in college took it pass/fail at the University of Colorado, just wanted to get through it.”   

Coffman's Spanish has improved a lot and he now regularly does radio and television interviews in Spanish.

“Telemundo is a little tough,” says Coffman. “[The interviewer] spoke very rapidly.”

Over the past few years, Coffman, 62, has emerged as a moderate Republican voice on immigration reform. Last year, he introduced a bipartisan bill called the Bridge Act, a three-year extension of DACA — basically, a way to buy some time for Congress and DACA recipients.

“It’s not the preferred route because I think there’s a great opportunity for a permanent solution, some sort version of the Dream Act,” says Coffman.

For some, the Bridge Act doesn’t come anywhere close to being enough.

Juan Gallegos was born in Mexico, came to the US when he was 12 and went to college here. He’s now 28. He’s a DACA recipient and carries an ID card with the date his legal status here expires: Aug. 28, 2019.

That may seem like a ways off, but that date is very real to people like Gallegos. If no solution is reached by then, Gallegos’s life could change dramatically.

“The way I’m looking at it is I’d probably go back to working under the table somewhere at a restaurant or doing something just to survive,” says Gallegos, who now directs the CIRC Action Fund, an immigrant rights group.  

Gallegos says, yes, Coffman introduced a bill to help people like him, but the bill hasn’t gone anywhere.

“You can be the lone wolf and sponsor 5 million bills, but if you don’t convince anyone to actually pass something, then it’s just lip service,” says Gallegos. “It’s like saying, 'I’m going to do something, but I’m not going to put all my strategy behind it to actually make it happen, I’m just going to make noise around it to say I’m doing something.'”

So, immigrant advocacy groups are putting the pressure on Coffman: phone banking, holding rallies and registering immigrant voters. They’ve been doing this for years.

Carla Castedo, with the group Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization, says Coffman needs to be a much stronger advocate for one of the most diverse districts in the nation and not just attend festivals or town halls and shake some hands. She wants to hear more substance from Coffman.

“I went into one of his constituency meetings, and when I asked him questions — because I was genuinely wanting to know what his position is beyond partisan points — he told me to go and look at his website,” says Castedo.

But is Coffman just playing politics? I put this question, via email, to political scientist Seth Masket with the University of Denver. He declined to answer that, but said that Coffman, who has maintained a relatively conservative record, has done "substantial outreach to minoroty and immigrant communities" and has subsequently “been able to thread the needle, avoiding serious primary challengers and eking out victories over some pretty strong Democratic challengers.”

Monique Lovato, who directs the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver, says Coffman has been responsive to his constituents and provided support, especially to small-business owners. She says on DACA, though, it’s mostly been rhetoric.  

“The challenge is going to be in the House of Representatives," says Lovato. “The next two weeks is Mike Coffman’s time to either shine or not. It’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is and speak up for the DACA recipients in his district. These are his constituents.”

There are a lot of heated opinions on the right path forward. The White House recently released an immigration plan that doesn't make a lot of people very happy. Immigration hardliners don't like that the plan offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants who were brought to the US as children. And immigrant-rights activists don't like the increased border security and curbing of family-based legal immigration.

Meantime, recipients of DACA are wondering what life will be like if nothing gets done on Capitol Hill. And today those negotiations are picking up again in Congress.

As for Coffman, he says he’s been doing all that can be done, including working across the aisle.  

“[I’ve] been very active,” says Coffman. “There will always be partisan voices out there. For their specific political interests, no Republican could ever do enough for them.”

And remember, Coffman is a Republican and conservative groups that favor tighter controls on immigration have attacked Coffman for his evolving positions.

That said, Coffman, who served in the Army and Marines, is also pushing for enhanced border security and tighter immigration laws going forward.

And Coffman points out, he’s not just working on DACA. He’s representing Indian immigrants working in high-tech who have visa concerns, El Salvadorans worried about losing their temporary protected status (TPS) after two major earthquakes devastated their country in 2001, and African, Chinese, and Korean immigrants with their issues. (Coffman favors granting permanent legal residency to those currently enrolled in TPS, but then ending the program and helping with more humanitarian aid in countries needing help.)

Coffman says he thinks they can pass the most substantial immigration overhaul since 1986. He’s been a critic of President Donald Trump but thinks the president can be the one to see it through.

“In a way, I think this president has an opportunity — if he quit saying strange, goofy things, I think that would help — but he has a tremendous opportunity, I think, to be that Nixon to China on immigration reform, and that’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what I’m optimistic for,” says Coffman.  

With midterm elections looming, if nothing gets done before November, Mike Coffman is surely going to catch a lot of heat. Then again, he could catch heat — for getting things done.

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI