Colorado Rep. Calls Guest Workers "Illiterate Peasants"
By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
April 22, 2008
State Rep. Douglas Bruce's derogatory remarks Monday about Mexican migrant workers could leave him facing a second censure penalty or worse.
"We don't need 5,000 more illiterate peasants in the state of Colorado," Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, said during debate on a bill to speed up a temporary seasonal worker program.
Audible gasps and cries of "no" filled the House chamber before Gunnison Democrat Rep. Kathleen Curry, in charge while the speaker handled other business, took the unusual step of banning Bruce from further comment on the bill.
"How dare you?" Curry asked him.
Bruce stood by his statement afterward, saying his colleagues are "offended by the truth" and contending the term was technically accurate. He said he'd been planning the bill-related speech — at least two pages, single-spaced — for about a week.
"I was trying to make illegal immigration an issue for the House," Bruce said. "They just don't want anybody to disagree with a bill that they like."
Premeditated bigotry is what Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, called it. He said that, as a descendant of "illiterate slaves," he believes that Bruce's comment warrants ethics hearings that could result in reprimand, censure or expulsion from the legislature.
"This statement is so bigoted . . . clearly it violated the decorum of the House," Carroll said.
It would be the second time in Bruce's short tenure as a lawmaker that his Capitol colleagues have investigated his conduct. He was censured earlier this year after he kicked a news photographer and is believed to be the only lawmaker in state history to receive that punishment.
Legislative leaders would not say whether a complaint, the first step in an investigation, had been filed.
House Minority Leader Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, has a say in whether ethics inquiries go forward. He blasted the comment but questioned the wisdom of censuring a lawmaker for political speech.
"It's his right," May said. "But the rest of us have a right to speak, too."
In a statement, Eduardo Arnal, consul general of Mexico in Denver, called Bruce's comments "offensive." He said they "do not contribute to the discussion on immigration between Mexico and the United States."
Although Bruce's comments drew the ire of immigrant-rights groups and the Mexican consul, not everyone found them offensive.
"I don't have a problem with that 'illiterate peasants' remark, because we all came from illiterate peasants," said Colorado Springs resident Greg Garcia, speaking as a Hispanic man and not in his official capacity as El Paso County Republican Party chairman.
What Garcia found offensive was the implication that Colorado wouldn't want such immigrants here legally, he said.
"They work hard, they provide for their family and they have made America stronger," Garcia added.
The bill Bruce began to rail against would help agricultural laborers from Mexico and other countries attain temporary work visas in Colorado.
House Bill 1325, which has bipartisan sponsorship, stipulates accommodations farmers must provide to laborers and rules to ensure that they return to home countries after the harvest. The bill cleared the House on second reading.
Lisa Duran, who heads the Denver-based Rights for All People, said that while most people would not utter "illiterate peasant" in public, Bruce's comment points to a common sentiment among citizens and policy makers alike.
"I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach when I read that quote," Duran said. "The fact that Rep. Bruce thinks that it's appropriate to characterize every person coming from a country as 'illiterate peasants' is shocking in its ignorance."
- Drew the ire of some lawmakers for delaying his start date in the statehouse so that he would serve less than half of a two- year term. That allows him to run for an additional eight years in the House instead of six.
- Became the first lawmaker in state history punished with censure after kicking a photographer on the floor of the House.
- Refused to co-sponsor a resolution honoring members of the military — saying he doesn't vote for nonbinding, symbolic resolutions — and was stripped by GOP leadership of a committee assignment as a result.
- Was criticized for placing fliers attacking his opponent in this year's GOP primary on the desks of several House Republicans.
- Was barred from further speaking during debate on a temporary-worker bill after saying, "We don't need 5,000 more illiterate peasants in the state of Colorado."