Should Montezuma County enter the immigration debate?

The Montezuma County commissioners are considering whether to weigh in on the explosive issue of illegal immigration by formally supporting the governor of Arizona, the state that recently passed the toughest immigration law in the nation.

For three meetings in a row, the commission was pressed by the grassroots 9-12 Project to take a largely symbolic stance against illegal immigration. But as of June 28 they had not decided what action, if any, to take.

Bud Garner, emcee for the local chapter of the conservative group, told the board the 9-12ers are not seeking support for the Arizona law itself, but wanted the county to write a letter supporting Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the legislature for passing the measure.

The law makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry their registration papers, and requires police to ask people they contact for other infractions about their immigration status if police have “reasonable suspicion” they’re illegally in the country. It mandates that police detain possible illegal aliens. It also targets people who hire illegals or transport them.

The law is expected to face legal challenges, as enforcing immigration laws is a federal responsibility under the Constitution.

On June 14, members of the 9-12 Project asked the commissioners to write a letter supporting Brewer and stating that Montezuma County is a “Rule of Law” county and not a “haven for criminal elements.”

The issue was put on the June 21 agenda, at which time the board heard again from the 9-12ers as well as Sheriff Gerald Wallace, who was asked his opinion. Wallace, a naturalized immigrant from New Zealand, said he believes “the legal way is the right way” to enter the country.

Wallace said he endorses the concept of the Arizona law but sees some problems with the details. However, he said he didn’t envision illegal immigration becoming a huge problem locally.

“Do I think we will have an influx of illegal immigrants coming to Colorado and Montezuma County? I don’t really think so,” he said. “If we had a larger opportunity for people to work, that might be a concern.”

Wallace said if sheriff ‘s officers encounter someone they believe to be an illegal alien, they call the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but only a “slim number” of people are deported.

Several citizens spoke in favor of the Arizona law. Mike Gaddy told the board he spent a month on the Mexican border in 2005 as a member of the Minuteman Project and that farmers and ranchers were desperate for help combating rampant vandalism and crime. One man had put gates in his fence so illegals could walk through, yet his fence was cut every 15 to 20 feet, Gaddy said. Another had water towers with spigots where the border-crossers could drink, but the towers were vandalized and the spigots torn out. Cattle were also slaughtered and eaten.

Gaddy said once he was present when 27 Iranians were caught crossing the border.

Dexter Gill of Lewis said Arizona is “literally being raped and abused.” He likened Montezuma County’s taking a stance to putting up a sign on a home warning of a security system in place. “It’s saying, ‘You’re not welcome, criminals’.”

Dennis Atwater of Dolores said his ancestors immigrated to America in the 1600s, adding, “The Indians had a very poor immigration policy then, and look what happened to them.”

He said for 35 years he lived 5 miles from the Mexican border and saw the problems there.

“We’re asking that you support Arizona’s governor,” he said. “It’s about, who are we in Montezuma County and what are we about?

California is near bankruptcy largely due to illegal immigrants’ entitlements, he said, and the county must protect itself.

He said immigration is like a balloon — “when you push on it in one place it pushes out in another.” Since other states are starting to push back on illegals, Atwater said, the question becomes, “Shall we throw out the welcome mat or protect our economic viability?”

Garner urge the county to take action. “It’s going to come here,” he said. “It has no choice but to come here. We better be proactive.”

But that day, board members Steve Chappell and Gerald Koppenhafer said they would wait to hear from Chairman Larrie Rule, who was absent, before deciding.

On June 28, the board heard from a different group — folks who opposed the county’s taking a stance.

Jim Skvorc of Dolores asked how it might affect the county economically, noting that Brewer has said boycotts of Arizona have cost the state an estimated $90 million so far.

And while Arizona might have compelling reasons for taking a hard line, Skvorc said, “those reasons don’t apply in Montezuma County.”

“We, in the county, enter into the national debate over immigration at our own peril,” he said. “I know that no one here today, especially you three commissioners, is willing to see a loss of revenue or, more importantly, a loss of jobs, due to a potential ‘Boycott Montezuma’ campaign.”

Skvorc also said he didn’t want to see public demonstrations here like those that have occurred in Arizona. “There is no benefit and no service to the county if we do this. We do not want the negative image this would bring.”

Skvorc read letters from three others who opposed the idea of the county taking a stance on illegal immigration. [See Pages 26 and 27.]

Earl Rohrbaugh of Cortez also advised the board not to formally support Arizona, saying such an act was outside their purview.

“We have no jurisdictional authority to act or present an opinion with any meaning on this issue,” he said. “If we were to accept this authority. . . there is no limit to the other questions faced in Colorado or other parts of the United States in which we might feel one side or the other and ask you as commissioners to take a stand.”

If the board starts weighing in on the “hundreds of issues currently facing the country today,” Rohrbaugh said, “we would become a county-wide debating society.”

Chappell questioned Rorhbaugh closely, asking what he thought society should do about terrorism and comparing illegal immigrants to people who enter a house without knocking.

“Somebody that would enter your house without your knowledge would be an intruder,” Chappell said.

“Yes,” Rohrbaugh replied.

Chappell said that is what is happening on a larger scale in the United States. “We have people entering without knocking on the door.”

But Rorhbaugh insisted that the county’s writing a letter would “contribute little or nothing to the solution and may act as a detriment to addressing the real problems that face us as a county.”

“If you caught that intruder in the house, you would want to know why he was there,” Chappell insisted. He asked Rohrbaugh whether it wasn’t appropriate for the county to encourage the federal government “to protect our house.”

“That would be your judgment as to whether that would be relevant to the question and whether it would be at all persuasive,” Rohrbaugh said. “It isn’t as though people at the federal and state level are blind to these questions.”

Chappell said it might carry more weight for the federal government to hear from a county than from private citizens alone.

“I think that’s what people are asking here,” Rule agreed. “To be proactive.” He said he was in Gunnison, Utah, recently and people there told him they are seeing more illegal immigrants coming into the state because they are fleeing Arizona.

Rohrbaugh maintained that for the county “to become cheerleaders for the Arizona legislature on a highly explosive issue is a mistake.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with the county supporting our country’s federal immigration laws,” Chappell said.

“But that is not what this group is asking you to do,” Rohrbaugh replied.

J.R. Berry then told the board that the issue before them was simply whether they endorsed the rule of law in the United States.

“If you endorse this, all you are doing is saying that we are a country of law,” Berry said, adding, “Those who would oppose this don’t believe in the rule of law in this country.”

Commission attorney Bob Slough then asked Berry whether he meant anyone who did not support this particular law didn’t support the U.S. Constitution, state constitution and laws of Colorado.

“If you’re against the bona fide law, then I would say you don’t support the rule of law,” Berry said.

“So you’re choosing what you consider the bona fide law and if I choose not to support it then I’m not supporting the rule of law in this country?” Slough asked. “Certainly I disagree with that.”

“We could go on about this all day long,” Rule said finally, adding that the commission would take all the comments under consideration.

The 9-12 group had approached the Cortez City Council first for support, but the council did not take action then and has not discussed the matter further, according to City Manager Jay Harrington. “I don’t get the sense that it’s a big priority for the council,” he said. “At this point it’s not on an agenda for discussion.”

The San Juan County, Utah, commission has said it does not want Utah to adopt legislation similar to Arizona’s because it might lead to boycotts that would harm the county’s critical tourism industry, according to the San Juan Record.

The Navajo Nation has expressed concern about the Arizona law, fearing that it could lead to Native Americans being harassed and asked for identification papers.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Ernest House has reportedly also voiced opposition to the Arizona law.

However, law-makers in 18 states have said they will push for similar legislation, the Associated Press reports, although not all those states are likely to pass it.

From July 2010.