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Colorado Republicans say House Democratic leaders gave them list of words they can't say in immigration debates

  • By Marissa Ventrelli

  • Apr 23, 2024 Updated Apr 24, 2024

  • from Colorado Politics

  • Photo: the House of Representatives in Denver on January 24, 2024

  • AP Photo by David Zalubowsky

Colorado Republicans are accusing Democratic leaders of censorship, saying the latter have provided them with a list of words they are prohibited from using during floor debates.

More specifically, Republicans claimed they were told not to say specific words, including "illegal alien," during debates on immigration.

House Democratic leaders could not be immediately reached for comment.  

It's the latest battle to erupt at the state Capitol over speech — or, more specifically, over words that the majority party deems offensive. In the past few months, Democrats and Republicans also clashed over using a transgender person's birth name, which activists refer to as "deadnaming."

And just a few weeks ago, a group filed a federal lawsuit against Democratic lawmakers, alleging they suppressed — during public hearings — the free speech of those opposed to a measure that would provide a specific avenue for transgender individuals convicted of felonies to legally change their name.  

On Saturday,  Rep. Ron Weinberg, R-Loveland, spoke of his own experience as an immigrant, labeling himself as an "illegal alien," during a discussion on House Bill 1280, which seeks to create a grant program for organizations to provide services for immigrants. 

During the debate, Rep. Kyle Brown, D-Louisville, who served as the debate chair, intervened and informed him that members are not allowed to use that term, even when referring to their own personal experiences. Brown, instead, suggested using other terms, such "undocumented immigrant," arguing that calling a person "illegal" can be hurtful and offensive. 

Weinberg's colleague, Rep. Gabe Evans, R-Hudson, faced a similar rebuke for using the term "illegal immigrants." Rep. Anthony Hartsook, R- Parker, also drew the gavel over what the majority believed to be an insinuation that the presence of immigrants unlawfully staying in the country could lead to a terrorist attack similar to September 11.

The illegal immigration crisis on the southern border has been spilling over into America's interior cities, notably in Denver, Chicago and New York. Recently, Denver officials traveled to the Mexico border to tell shelter providers in El Paso, Texas that the city will no longer have an open arms policy toward immigrants who arrive in Colorado's most populous jurisdiction after illegally crossing the border.

The city has been considering major cuts to its public safety budget and other places in an effort to contain the fiscal toll of the crisis. Over the past 16 months, Denver has cared for more than 41,000 immigrants at a cost of roughly $68 million. And although the state and federal government have reimbursed Denver about $14.5 million, city taxpayers have assumed the bulk of these costs.

Like their counterparts at the state Capitol, Denver officials prefers a specific word to describe the immigrants: "newcomers." 

On Monday, Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, R-Colorado Springs, said Republicans were "shut down" when using certain words, even though media organizations have used them or they are found in federal statutes. 

"We are provided by House leadership a list of words that are offensive to the majority around illegal immigration," Pugliese said.

"Today, we stand together to say that the minority being silenced and censored in this chamber is against the values we hold dear as Americans and as Coloradans," she said. "This isn't the first time we've been up here advocating for our voices to be heard." 

Pugliese acknowledged that illegal immigration is a touchy subject but argued that having difficult conversations is part of their duty as legislators. 

"The voters of Colorado want us to have these uncomfortable conversations," she said."

She noted a statewide poll earlier this month, which showed illegal immigration to be the paramount issue for Colorado voters. Roughly two in three view the unprecedented influx as a major problem lawmakers should address. Homelessness hit the No. 2 spot.

"The founding of this country was based on hard conversations. Free speech is free speech for all of us in this chamber," she said.

It's not the first time that Democrats have been accused of curtailing someone's speech around controversial subjects. 

Earlier this month, the Institute for Free Speech filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Gays Against Groomers and the Rocky Mountain Women’s Network to prohibit Colorado lawmakers from enforcing speaker restrictions against using “misgendering” and “deadnaming” language when referring to transgender individuals.

"Misgendering" refers to assigning the wrong gender to someone and "deadnaming" means using an individual’s birth name, rather than the name the person adopted as part of the gender transition.

The lawsuit claimed that lawmakers prevented two people from speaking during House and Senate Judiciary committee meetings in January and March because they had used a male pronoun for a transgender woman, the complaint said. 

Portions of one person's testimony — the complaint added — were scrubbed from the official audio recording of the Senate hearing.

Created in 2022, Gays Against Groomers is a nonprofit organization comprised of “gays against the sexualization, indoctrination and medicalization of children,” according to the group’s Instagram page. The organization is known for campaigning against "gender-affirming care" — which includes social, psychological or medical interventions for transgender individuals, such as hormone therapy and surgical procedures — for minors and criticizing Drag Queen Story Hour events.

House Bill 1280 will most likely be read for a third time later this week.  

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