Immigrant activists mobilize again

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JEB SHARP: President Obama promised to make immigration reform a priority in his first year in office. But the issue has largely been edged out by health care and the economy. This weekend, thousands are expected to rally in Washington to try to thrust immigration back onto a packed Congressional agenda. In the crowd will be busloads of Latino activists from western states like Nevada and Colorado. The Latino population in those states is soaring and many Latinos there are frustrated by the lack of action on immigration reform. Kirk Siegler sent this report from Denver.

KIRK SIEGLER: It's Latino advocacy day at the Colorado State Capital. And 18-year-old Luis is climbing three flights of stairs in the rotunda.

LUIS: I have to become a lobbyist right now, so I guess I have to get used to this.

SIEGLER: Luis and some others have managed to get a few minutes with the Democratic President of the Colorado Senate Brandon Schaeffer. After the meeting, Luis says he was nervous going in, but excited to see how the political process works.

LUIS: Yeah, it was something really exciting; something thrilling about that just makes me want to be here.

SIEGLER: Like a growing number of young Latinos who have spent most of their childhoods in the U.S., Luis says he feels American, but he's not. He's living in the U.S. illegally, which is why he asked that we not use his last name. His parents moved to nearby Longmont, Colorado ten years ago fleeing the violence of the Mexican State of Chiapas. They settled in Colorado where hospitality and farming jobs were plentiful. Luis lived a fairly normal life here, but when he discovered he couldn't afford college this year because illegal immigrants have to pay out of state tuition he started on the path to being, as he says, a lobbyist.

LUIS: Like it's really empowering. Because I'd rather be here than outside because in here they'll hear my voice and outside, they're like oh they're just more people screaming for something.

SIEGLER: What most immigrants are so vocal about, whether illegal or legal, is immigration reform.

JULIE GONZALES: A lot of the hope and change that we were promised hasn't yet been delivered.

SIEGLER: Julie Gonzales is Colorado's Director for Reform Immigration for America Campaign. She says Latinos are starting to feel snubbed after all the work they did in the 2008 election and they want an immigration reform bill this year.

GONZALES: What we've seen in actuality is more deportations under the Obama administration. We've seen families who have continued to be separated because of the broken immigration system that we currently have.

SIEGLER: But the fact that young, undocumented immigrants like Luis are becoming increasingly involved in politics, seems to be adding fuel to the fire for those on the other side of the debate who say immigrants like Luis and his family broke the law to come here and shouldn't be entitled to the benefits that citizens get.

DICK LAMM: I think that it's just a real mistake. We have to concentrate on moving our own people up.

SIEGLER: Former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm, a democrat, is one of this region's most vocal opponents of so-called comprehensive immigration reform.

LAMM: Our economy is not producing enough jobs for our own people, let alone all of a sudden trying to solve the problem of Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, other places.

SIEGLER: Lamm and others in Colorado have bitterly fought efforts to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The divisive political climate on immigration is one of the main reasons why Latinos turned out en masse to the polls here in 2008. In that year, Latinos accounted for about 15% of Colorado's total vote and their political clout is only rising, says Professor Rob Preuhs. But Preuhs, who studies western Latino issues at Metropolitan State College at Denver, doesn't think immigration reform will be the deal breaker for Latino voters this year.

ROB PREUHS: In what they view as, and currently view as, the most important issues, they look a lot like the general population; jobs the economy.

SIEGLER: Back at Latino Advocacy Day, a group of high school aged Latinos are reciting a poem at a rally on the state capital steps. Luis listens to the chants of I have a voice from the sidelines. He says he wants to save his energy for the long bus ride to Washington for this Sunday's rally. But he says being here has been a good warm up for the national stage. He's just excited that more young people like him, especially the undocumented immigrants, are getting involved in the fight for immigration reform.

LUIS: Because we can do a lot of stuff. Even though we're not voters, we can tell people. We can influence other voters.

SIEGLER: Organizers are hoping tens of thousands will attend this weekend's rally in D.C. Smaller, local marches are planned throughout the country. For The World, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.