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U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff attended a Democratic forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Andrew Romanoff pitches himself to Democratic voters as the proven progressive option in Colorado’s 2020 primary race for U.S. Senate. 

But his record on immigration complicates that narrative. As Colorado’s House speaker from 2005 to 2009, he oversaw the passage of what at the time were considered among the most restrictive policies in the nation when it comes to people living in the U.S. illegally. 

Romanoff has specifically come under attack and been criticized –– both from fellow candidates and immigration advocates –– for his role in a series of measures passed by the legislature in 2006, including during a special legislative session that year.

Senate Bill 90 was the most consequential of the 2006 measures, requiring local law enforcement to report arrestees to federal authorities if officers suspected them of being in the U.S. unlawfully. The bill was repealed in 2013. There were also policies restricting people living in the U.S. illegally from accessing government assistance programs and requiring business owners to provide proof of the legal work status of their employees.

“What is extraordinarily frustrating is that he’s never acknowledged the actual harm he helped create for the immigrant community –– legislation that’s still impacting those communities,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and longtime immigrant advocate. “I want to work alongside people to build the world that we all want to see. It’s hard to believe them when they were actively involved in building policies that harmed members of our community but who now say, ‘Trust me.’’’

Romanoff says the measures were a “serious mistake” that produced unintended consequences that he deeply regrets. But at the time he maintained that the measures didn’t compromise his beliefs and told The Los Angeles Times that at least some of the policies were “tough, effective, enforceable and practical.”

Since then, Romanoff argues, he has worked hard to help immigrants by advocating for comprehensive policy reform –– a goal he vows to continue toward if elected next year. He brushed off the idea that the legislation he supported in 2006 could hurt his standing with progressive voters. 

“People can take anything they want into account when they are making a decision,” Romanoff told The Colorado Sun last week. “If they’re holding out for a candidate who’s never made a mistake, they probably won’t cast many votes.”

As for the criticism from Gonzales, who has spent more than a decade blasting Romanoff for his role in the 2006 bills, he said: “She’s definitely entitled to her feelings, but that criticism is at odds with the facts.”

U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff speaks with voters after a candidate forum at Centennial Middle School in Montrose, Sunday Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Romanoff says he supported the repeal of Senate Bill 90 in 2013 and that he’s spent years trying to make up for the mistakes he made on immigration in 2006. 

Romanoff’s 2020 U.S. Senate campaign platform includes support for a pathway to citizenship for those now living in the U.S. illegally. He also wants to expand visa programs for workers and protect people who are shielded from deportation under programs like Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Finally, Romanoff said that crossing the U.S. border without permission should no longer be a crime and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be done away with. “I think the agency has lost its credibility and needs to be replaced,” he said.

Romanoff has also been a fierce critic of President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, saying Trump has demonized immigrants and is trying to divide the nation.

Romanoff’s record on immigration has followed him through multiple runs for higher office. It complicated his 2010 bid for U.S. Senate, in which former state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri accused him of demonstrating “that if it’s politically expedient for him, he’s willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable in the Latino communities,” according to a Denver Post article. 

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman used Romanoff’s immigration record as an attack point in Romanoff’s 2014 bid for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District seat

“We’ve been having this conversation for 13 years,” Romanoff told The Sun. 

On Sept. 6, the day before the first major forum for the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, he published a post at about the 2006 laws, hoping it would clarify his record and counteract what he describes as a lot of incorrect information. 

Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst, agrees that the issue is “getting a little dated.”

“But in the Democratic party –– in both parties –– purity these days becomes even more important,” he said. “The true believers give you decreasing latitude to deviate from orthodoxy. It just provides one issue where he’s not left of Hickenlooper and has to play defense instead of putting Hickenlooper on the defensive.”

Romanoff is one of nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Colorado’s 2020 U.S. Senate race, including former Gov. John Hickenlooper. 

MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it

Romanoff’s immigration record doesn’t remove him as the leading progressive candidate in the race, Sondermann said, but it is a mark on his record. 

“It’s a strike,” he said. “It’s not strike two or strike three, but it’s a strike.”

In recent months, Romanoff’s rivals in the primary campaign for a chance to unseat Republican U.S Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 have kept his immigration record in the spotlight, seizing on the issue at recent candidate forums.

Candidate Lorena Garcia, in a campaign fundraising email, accused Romanoff of trying to “sugarcoat some truly terrifying parts” of his voting record on immigration. She also said at a campaign event that Romanoff allowed for the passage of the “nation’s harshest anti-immigrant laws.”

Michelle Ferrigno Warren, another Romanoff rival in the 2020 primary who has long worked on immigration issues, said she hasn’t forgotten what happened in 2006 –– “and neither has the Hispanic community.”

“There are consequences when people make decisions,” she said. ”There was harm done then. I’m not speaking for the Hispanic community, but I have heard over and over again — they’re remembering that and also just how painful it was. … I don’t think the water is muddy. I think it is clear where Andrew stood then.”

U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Ferrigno Warren speaks to a voter after a forum held at Centennial Middle School in Montrose on Sunday Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The 2006 bills targeting people living in the U.S. illegally in Colorado, however, didn’t happen in a vacuum. That same year, there were more than 550 bills concerning immigrants introduced in legislatures across the nation. Immigration was also a hot-button issue in Congress, where legislation was being considered that would have turned millions of people living in the U.S. unlawfully into felons and made it a crime to aid a person living in the U.S. illegally. 

Romanoff has in the past argued that the bills passed that year in Colorado were in response to the lack of congressional movement on immigration. 

He also says that measures targeting people living in the U.S. illegally passed during a rare special legislative session in 2006 called by then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, were more tolerable than policies being pushed by immigration hard-liners. 

“We kept getting bill after bill,” said former state Rep. Fran Coleman, a Latina Democrat who represented Denver in the legislature at that time. “Most of them were pretty draconian.”

The political dynamics — Democrats had only recently retaken power in the House — were such that they couldn’t just say “no” to everything without risking their power at the legislature, she said.

Owens called the special session after the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a citizen ballot initiative seeking to amend the state constitution to bar people in the country illegally from accessing government assistance programs. Owens wanted the legislature to refer the measure to the ballot and demanded that lawmakers either do that, Romanoff says, or come up with a statutory alternative. 

“I thought at the time that the compromise we passed during the special session in 2006 was less damaging than the constitutional amendment we killed,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I would have adjourned the session and dared the governor to call us back.”

The dome of the Colorado Capitol on July 26, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Instead, Romanoff says, the special session served to “indulge — and by extension legitimize — the Republicans’ premise.” 

The result of the special session was that the policy barring people in the country illegally from accessing government assistance programs was put in statute. But, Romanoff said, since the statute duplicated federal law, it had little to no effect.

Polly Baca, a former state lawmaker who in 2006 was fighting the ballot initiative in her role as president and CEO of the Latin American Research and Service Agency, said she still supports Romanoff today because of his willingness to work with her organization.

“The laws that were passed, which I never liked, were passed in order to prevent a constitutional question from being placed on the ballot and create harm that we could not repair,” said Baca, who has endorsed Romanoff’s 2020 campaign. “We didn’t like any of the laws that were passed, but it was about the lesser of a number of evils. People misunderstood his role, and yes it did harm him because of the misunderstanding of the role that he played.”

Bill Vandenberg, who worked for Colorado’s Progressive Coalition in 2006, now known as the Colorado People’s Alliance, says he thinks Democrats gave up too much. 

“I know that they believe they made difficult decisions to compromise in order to fend off some of the nastiest populist ballot initiatives at that time, but in doing so I think that they compromised fundamental democratic principles of fairness and equality,” Vandenberg said. “I think they could have fought harder. And I think that they took immigrant communities for granted.”

Immigration-related laws passed in Colorado in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

*Some of these policies have since been repealed and/or altered

House Bill 1343: Prohibited state agencies from entering into agreements with contractors who knowingly employed people living in the U.S. illegally and required prospective contractors to verify the legal work status of all their employees. 

House Bill 1001: Required that contractors verify the legal work status of their employees before applying for economic development incentives. 

House Bill 1009: Mandated that licenses, permits, registration, certificates only be issued only to people living in the U.S. legally and also mandated removal of authorization of those documents if the applicant was found to be undocumented.

House Bill 1015: Mandated that employers withhold 4.63% from the wages of an employee that didn’t have a valid Social Security number, taxpayer ID number or an IRS-issued taxpayer ID for non-resident aliens.

House Bill 1017: Required that employers examine the work status of each new employee within 20 days of hiring them and also retain proof that their employees had legal work status. Employers hiring unauthorized workers faced a penalty of $5,000 for the first offense of showing “reckless disregard” in submitting falsified documents.

Senate Bill 110: Provided funding for a full-time position in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to investigate the fabrication of fake documents. It also implemented a $50,000 civil fine for counterfeiting identification documents.

House Bill 1306: Required an audit of a 2003 law restricting the use of foreign identification papers, including consulate identification cards. 

Senate Bill 90: Prohibited any state or local governments from enacting legislation impeding law enforcement agencies from cooperating or communicating with federal immigration officials concerning an arrestee suspected to be living in the U.S. illegally. Police officers were also required under the law to report any arrestees suspected of being in the country unlawfully to U.S. Immigration and Customs. Any local government that did not subscribe to the act would not have been eligible for state grants.

House Bill 1014: Instructed Colorado’s attorney general to pursue reimbursement from the federal government for all costs associated with illegal immigration, including incarceration, education and health care.

House Bill 1002: Mandated that people living in the U.S. illegally should receive services including the investigation, identification, testing, preventive care and treatment of epidemic or communicable disease, including TB, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. 

House Bill 1023: Restricted public benefits from going to those who were not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Applicants for public benefits who were 18 years old or older needed to show a valid ID, such as a Colorado driver’s license or ID card, military ID, etc. under the law before receiving benefits under the law. Restricted benefits under the legislation included retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance and unemployment. All Colorado residents, regardless of legal status, were allowed to receive emergency medical services, immunizations and treatments for communicable diseases, other services necessary for life and safety, prenatal care and short-term emergency relief under the legislation. 

Senate Bill 206: Made smuggling humans a Class 3 felony, unless the adult victim was living in the U.S. illegally, in which case the offense was a Class 2 felony.

Senate Bill 207: Made human trafficking a crime and increased penalties. 

Senate Bill 225: Created a division in the Colorado State Patrol Department of Public Safety to address human smuggling and human trafficking on state highways.

Senate Bill 4: Included threats to report a person’s immigration status to law enforcement officials in the definition of the state’s laws prohibiting extortion.

Senate Bill 5: Made threatening the destruction of immigration or work documents or threatening the notification of law enforcement officials of an undocumented person’s status in order to force them to work, with or without compensation, a Class 6 felony.

Senate Bill 7: Made the act of deliberately voting in an election without proper authorization a Class 5 felony.

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....