Colorado Democrats Grapple with Legislator Calling Himself an "Alien" | Westword

Immigrant Legislator Calls Himself "Illegal Alien," Challenging Colorado Democrats' Decorum Rules

"I am these words and I was these words," says Ron Weinberg. "I'm never going to be suppressed." The bill is back for debate today.
Republican Representative Ron Weinberg came to the United States from South Africa as a teenager — and was briefly undocumented when he aged out of his father's work permit.
Republican Representative Ron Weinberg came to the United States from South Africa as a teenager — and was briefly undocumented when he aged out of his father's work permit. Hannah Metzger
Share this:
Can you restrict the language a person uses to describe himself? That's the question one Colorado legislator is forcing Democratic leadership to face.

State lawmakers were given a list of immigration-related terms to avoid during recent policy debates, including "alien," "illegal," "invader," "fresh off the boat" and "anchor babies." The list came from the legislature's Democratic leadership ahead of a hearing on a migrant grant program, suggesting alternative terms like "undocumented immigrant," "noncitizen" and "new arrivals."

Several Republican representatives used the non-recommended terms during a discussion of the bill on April 20, resulting in their being cut off with the bang of a gavel and asked to rephrase. But one legislator's use of the terms caused more debate than the rest.

"I, at one point in my life...was an illegal alien," said Republican Representative Ron Weinberg, who came to the United States from South Africa as a teenager. Chair Kyle Brown, a Democrat, immediately called the House into recess.

Brown directed Weinberg to use the approved words on the list, saying his language "skirts a very difficult line and can be offensive to many." But Weinberg ignored the guidance, going on to call himself an "undocumented alien," say other people accused him of being an "invader," and explain that he "had to go through the system being fresh off the boat."

Weinberg says he typically does not use that kind of language to describe himself, and intentionally used the terms listed as unacceptable. Being told what words he shouldn't use is "suppression of speech," he argues.

"I am these words and I was these words," he says. "I'm going to push the envelope on this one because it's not right."

According to Majority Leader Monica Duran, the Republican leadership requested the list of immigration terms months ago; the list is not a ban on certain words, she says, but a guide for phrases that can be used in place of offensive ones. It refers to a 2021 memo from the Biden administration to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, directing the office to no longer use the terms “alien” or “illegal alien” to describe migrants.

"It wasn't a demand. It was, 'You asked for it, sorry it took so long, but now that the topic is up, here you go,'" Duran says. "It wasn't an infringement on their First Amendment rights. ... It was totally turned into something that it wasn't."

Minority Leader Rose Pugliese requested the list because Democratic leadership was already enforcing what immigration-related language could be used during debates, in "an Orwellian policy of newspeak," she says.

"We simply asked for the policy they’re imposing to be put in writing," Pugliese adds.

Though there's no official ban on the non-recommended immigration language included on the list, legislators who used the words during the April 20 debate were gaveled and asked to use the approved words instead.

Republican Representative Gabe Evans was interrupted twice for using the phrase "illegal immigrants." Republican Representative Anthony Hartsook was gaveled for suggesting the grant program could attract terrorists, saying "I do not want to live through another 9/11" before Brown cut him off. "I'm sure you aren't trying to imply that the new migrants are terrorists," Brown said, "but if you were, that would not be allowed."

According to Duran, the decorum expectations for how legislators should speak about immigration are the same for all legislative debates. For example, legislators can't curse, call each other names or impugn each other's motives during debates, and are gaveled if they do so.

"They can use any's not saying you're not allowed. It's saying let's be responsible and thoughtful about the language that we use," Duran says — even if legislators are speaking about themselves.

"I'm a survivor of domestic violence. I've shared my story up there, but I've tried to be thoughtful and mindful of the words that I use because I know that certain words can be triggering," she adds.

This isn't the first time this session that the Capitol has grappled with balancing speech protections with restricting offensive language.

Two Coloradans are currently suing a group of Democratic legislators for interrupting their testimonies on a transgender-related bill when they repeatedly misgendered transgender individuals and used their former "deadnames." During a floor debate on the bill, Republican Representative Scott Bottoms used a trans woman's deadname and was asked to leave the well by House Speaker Julie McCluskie.

Weinberg says he doesn't find the non-recommended immigration words offensive; for him, this is simply an issue of freedom of speech.

"I'm never going to be suppressed," Weinberg says. "We're not using this [non-recommended] language here, not during the session last year or this year. Why are you trying to get ahead of something that's not a problem? Now, you're going to make it a problem."

But Democratic Representative Elizabeth Velasco says she remembers many offensive immigration terms being used last year during debates on restricting local law enforcement from detaining people on civil immigration violations.

"That was my first year. It was very surprising. I don't think there's another job where people can talk that way for an hour to a colleague," says Velasco, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age fifteen. "It was hurtful last year and it was hurtful this year. ... Why can't we just speak to the policy instead of offending each other?"

Velasco is sponsoring the migrant grant program bill that was the subject of the most recent immigration language debate. She calls the Republican representatives' speeches "offensive" and "disappointing."

The bill, House Bill 24-1280, had been scheduled for its final House debate on April 29 — but the debate had already been delayed twice since the controversy on April 20, and is now set for today, April 30.

"My hope is people have thought about how things were handled, what was said, and then we'll go from there," Duran says. And if the same language is used in the next debate? "I'm going to be optimistic and say it's not going to happen."

"I don't know what I'm going to do until I do it," responds Weinberg.
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.