Some Coloradans are truly Native: the Ute Mountain Ute, the Southern Ute, and the sons and daughters of Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and other tribes who have lived here for centuries. The rest of us are newcomers.
Silver mining brought Scandinavians, Irish and Scots. The railroads brought Chinese. Coal mining brought Italians, Germans and Russians. Farming and sheep ranching on the Western Slope is powered by the labor of Hispanic immigrants, while the meatpacking plants in Greeley and Fort Morgan are staffed extensively by Africans, many of them Somali.
Given that our history is rich with the contributions of immigrants, it is striking how much interest there seems to be in restricting each new wave of immigrants.
Bias against Chinese laborers led to a federal law excluding Chinese immigrants in 1882, after the transcontinental railroad had been built. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan used its significant political power in Colorado to target Roman Catholics, including Italian immigrants, and African Americans. Around the same time, at the federal level, laws were put in place that favored immigrants from western and northern Europe and barred immigrants from Africa and Asia—restrictions that weren’t reversed until 1965.
These initiatives have often crumbled against the force of a competing national instinct, which poet Emma Lazarus articulated and the Statue of Liberty enshrines:
… “Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In Colorado, we also have a proud history of welcoming immigrants and their families. They’re our heroes: People like Molly Brown, a Leadville legend, and the child of Irish Catholic immigrants; or Chin Lin Sou, who immigrated from southern China in 1859 to build the railroad and became a successful and respected business owner. They help us make sense of our identities: Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a Mexican-American civil rights leader and son of an immigrant, raised the consciousness of a generation by weaving together strands of the Chicano identity in his poem Yo Soy Joaquin. They remind us what we stand for: Just last month, a Denver church made national headlines by giving refuge to Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented mother of three who has chosen to fight a deportation order.
In 2017, we are witnessing a new push to assert the rights of some immigrants and their children over the rights of others, once again along lines of difference. While the executive order barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries has been largely struck down in federal court, there is still a strong interest from the new administration to address immigration restrictions and deportation efforts for undocumented immigrants.
Like historical efforts to restrict immigration, these policies aren’t based on evidence of real threat to our economy, our safety or our cultural values; they appear to be based more on fear and bias. Our economy is supported by an immigrant workforce; we are safer when we are united; and our values are equality, liberty and justice.
We Coloradans have an opportunity now to declare our values without injuring our economy or our safety. We can do this by welcoming immigrants and by assuring that our policies don’t institutionalize bias, but rather live up to our better instincts. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the healthy thing to do, and because doing so honors the proudest contributions of our immigrant past.
Ned Calonge is the president and CEO of The Colorado Trust and co-wrote this story with Kristin Jones, The Trust’s assistant director of communications.