16 July 2006

Harmony In West Denver

The Denver Post delivered the conventional wisdom, backed up by survey research, in its front page, top center Sunday headline, which will arrive on more front porches than any other newspaper this week, due to the way the joint operating agreement between Colorado's two largest dailies works:

Immigration At Forefront

Immigration is the single most important issue facing the state, far surpassing concerns about the economy, jobs and education, according to a poll of voters conducted for The Denver Post.

The story smells. It smells like fish rotting in a river of outrage a mile wide and an inch deep.

Public opinion frequently follows, rather than drives, legislative leadership, and former Mayor Pena correctly identified what is skewing the numbers:

The high polling numbers may be partly due to all the media attention on the state legislature's five-day special session that produced a measure to prevent illegal immigrants from collecting taxpayer-funded benefits. Additionally, the issue has taken center stage in the past few weeks as Congress tried - and failed - to forge a compromise on legislation, said fromer Denver Mayor Federico Pena. . . .

But, the real reason it smells is because the survey numbers don't match the zeitgeist on the ground. On the eve of April 29, 1992, the first day of the Los Angeles riots, the racial tension in the South Los Angeles neighborhoods where they began was palpable. This isn't true at ground zero of demographic change in Denver today.

No one denies that there has been a great deal of immigration in the United States in the last three decades or so.

In 1970, there were fewer than 10 million immigrants in the country - less than 5 percent of the population - and almost none of them were undocumented.

Since then, the immigrant population has grown to 35 million, with about 30 percent estimated to be undocumented.

And, no one denies that this has had a profound effect on Denver's demographics.

For those unfamiliar with the invisible boundaries of segregation that remain pervasive in Denver, the West side of Denver is the center of the Hispanic community in the city. North Denver is heavily African American, Southeast Asians co-exist with Latinos in a small part of West Denver, and whites are mostly found in the Southeast part of the city.

The experience of Southwest Denver's Lincoln High School, in the middle of Denver's two contested primaries this August, House District 1 and Senate District 32, is representative of the changes that have taken place in Denver's West Side, as part of the larger national trend. According to the school's official profile:

In the forty-two years that Abraham Lincoln High School has been serving Denver's southwest community, it has seen a dramatic shift in the students it educates. In 1960, 95% of the students at Abraham Lincoln High School were white. Since 1980, Lincoln High School has seen a steady growth of students from Sudan, Somalia, China, Vietnam, and Mexico. This current school year, 2002-2003, 80.5% of our students are of Hispanic descent, 8.4% White, 7.0% Asian, 3.3% African-American, and 0.8% American Indian.

Yet, despite these dramatic changes, there is little noticeable tension where you would expect it to be most palpable, at the interfaces of the immigrant and non-immigrant communities in Denver.

Consider Lakeside Amusement Park, where I spent my Sunday afternoon with my family.

The rides haven't changed much since Perry Como's big band considered it a necessary stop on their national tour in 1950s. Now, it is a family oriented attraction, overshadowed by Elitch's, which was once just down the road, but has since moved to Denver's Platte Valley neighborhood, near downtown.

Its location at Sheridan, from 44th Street to I-70, is on one of the invisible boundary lines of segregated Denver. Lakeside itself is one of Colorado's smallest incorporated municipalities, with fewer than two dozen residents and the vast majority of the land owned by just one woman, who owns and operates the amusement park and owns the neighboring strip mall as well. To its East is Denver's predominantly Hispanic West side. To its Southwest is Wheat Ridge, a working class, predominantly white first ring suburb of Denver in Jefferson County in the politically pivotal 7th Congressional District, where I worked for three years and from which I still draw a notable share of my business. To the North are more Denver suburbs. Republican candidate for Governor Bob Beauprez calls nearby Arvada home, at least officially.

If you were seeking out modern day Sharks and Jets, with ethnic dimensions, this would be the place to look. But, the story wouldn't be there. The harmonious reality would make any college viewbook editor, always under pressure to create an appearance of diversity whether or not it exists, wet himself with joy. Young African-American and white couples dating were common place and raised no eyebrows. Probably about half the crowd was Hispanic, mostly Chicano, and much of its the part of the crowd was predominantly Spanish speaking. Most of the rest of the crowd was working class white, a demographic not stereotypically known for politically correct tolerance. Sprinkled amongst them were a few Asian tourists, some of whom looked to be short term visitors from abroad, enjoying a family vacation in the American West.

Ethnic and racial tensions were almost complete absent. The body language that indicates tension or discomfort just wasn't there. The somewhat involved rules that govern behavior in amusement parks (with tickets, lines, etc.), a near total absence of non-English signage, and a significant share of visitors who did not speak English as their native language provided all sorts of opportunities for misunderstandings to go bad, but there wasn't so much as a raised voice in the entire facility for the entire time that I was there. There was only one incident at all that had even the potential to be notable.

Just as I walked in, a middle aged Chicano man, in cowboy attire, had been backed up, as much by body language, as by force, against a deserted ticket stand by someone in a uniform (it later became clear that he was one of Lakeside's finest; one of the virtues of owning almost the entire city is that your amusement park security force can have genuine law enforcement status).

What was going on? Was this a case of police overzealousness? Was this an immigration official? Would this lead to "trouble"?

The man in the uniform took a sheathed knife from a holster on the man's belt, opened it, confirmed that it was neither too long to violate the law, nor a switchblade, and returned it to him politely. The incident ended as quickly as it had arisen, and all suspicions dissolved.

In isolation, this might not mean much. But it is part of a larger picture.

Earlier this year, just about the only actually debated issue in the platform of the Denver County Democratic Party Assembly was immigration. Denver is a town which is overwhelmingly Democratic and the assembled party overwhelmingly rejected a hard line approach to immigration. At this year's Colorado Democratic Party Assembly, gubinatorial candidate Bill Ritter's rhetoric on immigration argued in favor of care and practicality, over hysteria.

Saturday, I dropped my son off for a play date with some family friends who live a couple of blocks from Morrison Road in Southwest Denver, which runs diagonally from Alameda to Sheridan Street, the Western boundary of Denver. Almost every business on Morrison Road either caters primarily to a Spanish speaking Latino customer base, or is Hispanic owned. This Saturday, the Alameda end was marked by a local Spanish language AM radio station promoting itself with Latina dancers strutting their stuff to the station's music. A parking lot near the other end had a mobile taco truck with a line of people waiting in line to buy its wares.

The family we were visiting was white, as were perhaps a half of the people out and about on their block. The rest were Latino, with taxis parked in many of the neighborhood driveways. All along Morrison Road, in a nearby independent pet shop on Sheridan where we stopped at to comparison shop for Goldfish supplies, and in talking with these friends of the family at length, there wasn't a note of tension or fear.

This isn't terribly surprising in light of national trends that show that states with the largest immigrant populations are the most pro-immigrant, while those with the smallest immigration populations are the most anti-immigrant, the opposite of what one would expect if immigration concerns were reality based.

The lack of a sense of crisis also isn't limited to places where immigrant communities and non-immigrant communities collide.

I visited some of my devoutly Republican relatives in Akron, Colorado, deep in Marilyn Musgrave's 4th Congressional District, last summer. Two Christmas cards one with a photograph from President George W. Bush, and another card from his Presidential father, sits just over the kitchen table. We talked about many political issues. Several members of the family were putting up signs in favor of Referendum C. Nobody was concerned about immigration. The lack of a burning sense of crisis from them wasn't surprising. George W. Bush isn't exactly a firebreathing extremist on immigration either. In the run up to the 2004 election he proposed to allow some eight million illegal immigrants to obtain legal status as temporary workers, and he reiterated this (albeit with some harder line rhetoric thrown in) as part of the plan he pushed in Congress in May.

I spent three years in the late 1990s living Grand Junction, Colorado, home both to Democrat and Joint Budget Committe Chairman Bernie Buescher, and to fervently anti-immigrant State Senator Ron Teck, who proposed a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship in the just concluded special session. Every Friday, while working in a law firm there, working for, among others, a former chairman of the county Republican Party, I had lunch in a local country club. Immigration was not a priority or a major fear of people there.

Ken Gordon, the State Senator from the Democratic Party, and the Democratic party candidate for Secretary of State in 2006 was more frank than most in his mass e-mailing last Friday:

Business went to the Governor and pointed out that nearly 200,000 people who would not be able to provide documentation are working in Colorado. There was a bill pending that would have caused all of these people to lose their jobs. I wasn't in the meeting, but when I heard that statistic, I thought we need to understand the impact of what we are doing a little better before we risk the economy of Colorado.

Maybe the Governor decided the same thing.

The attitude throughout Southeast Denver, where I live, is one of overwhelming benign neglect. There is a lot more Spanish language polkaesque music coming out of construction jobs, gardening crews and cleaning crews in this part of Denver than there is country western music. Few people are alarmed. Few people feel threatened. Few people are afraid.

It is also notable that the rallying cry of those who care most, concern about state spending on illegal immigrants, is more myth than reality.

[A] broad majority of those polled - including a majority of Hispanic voters - believe that illegal immigrants "cost the Colorado state government a lot of tax money," . . .

But, this isn't the case.

Even former Governor Lamm, who was the public face of a proposal to limit state services to illegal immigrants sponsored by a group known as Defend Colorado Now, thinks the public has it wrong:

Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who spearheaded the group that sponsored the constitutional amendment, said he was "bothered" that voters believed the state's No. 1 issue was illegal immigration.

"It makes me think I was almost too successful bringing attention to the issue," he said. "This is not a very good reading on what problems the state faces. It's a serious issue, but people seem to have gone from an underreaction to overreaction."

Governor Owens, the man who called a special session to deal with the "emergency" of inaction on the Defend Colorado Now proposal to cut state services to illegal immigrants himself took the position before the Joint Budget Committee that: "state government was the wrong place to look for the costs of services provided to illegal immigrants."

Defend Colorado Now, the backer of the proposals whose removal from the ballot propelled Governor Owen's into calling a special session, also found so little enthusiasm for "defending Colorado" here in the state that it collected 30% of its funds from an organization in Petroskey, Michigan, with links to white supremacist groups.

Yes, the fear is finally starting to percolate. But, it is a top down phenomena. It is being stirred up, not arising from the grass roots.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

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