James Mejia: Activist attacks Denver mayoral candidate for using phrase "illegal immigrants"

James Mejia is now among the frontrunners in the race for Denver mayor, which makes him a target for attacks -- including an unexpected one from a group of Latino activists led by Lidia Ortiz.

They've written an open letter blasting Mejia for using the phrase "illegal immigrants" in a Denver Post issues roundup this past weekend. See it and the Mejia campaign's response below.

Mayoral candidates were asked the following question by the Post: "Do you support efforts at the state level to provide in-state tuition at Colorado colleges and universities for the children of illegal immigrants?" Mejia responded, "I do support in-state tuition at Colorado colleges for children of illegal immigrants."

This phrasing set off Ortiz and the other letter signatories. They write, "The use of 'illegal,' by any person much less a fellow Latino, as a description of an entire race of people envelopes all of us in a poisonous cloud of racism, discrimination, bias and unfairness."

What's Mejia campaign manager Berrick Abramson's response? "When asked about tuition equity by the Denver Post editorial board, James repeated the question as asked in his response," he writes via e-mail -- and then encourages support for SB 126, the so-called ASSET Bill, which calls for tuition equity for such students. He also shares a release from Mejia touting the legislation. He calls the statement "yet another public illustration of his lifelong commitment to education."

By the way, Ortiz is a prominent supporter of fellow mayoral candidate Chris Romer, frequently liking items on his campaign Facebook page.

Look below to see the activists' letter, followed by the Mejia campaign release.

Activists letter:

Mejia Illegal Immigrant Quote

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with great alarm and disappointment that we read The Denver Post Sunday's April 17, 2011 Question/Answer article with the Denver Mayoral candidates. There were several questions asked regarding the Denver Public Schools in particular and Denver education in general.

When asked about their position on tuition equity for children of undocumented parents, each candidate answered the question either pro or con. However, the most prominent Latino candidate James Mejia answered... "I support tuition equity for children of illegal immigrants."

We had to re-read Mr. Mejia's answer to see if indeed we had misread it. There it was. "Illegal immigrant"; coming from a candidate who has professed to support a socially progressive and aggressive agenda for the large Latino demographic in the City and County Denver. This is not a mistake... a gaffe. This was a reaffirmation, by a Latino no less, of the struggle of millions of Latino citizens, and noncitizens alike, face day in and day out when the dehumanizing, degrading, and divisive label of "illegal" is used. This disgraceful label casts a pejorative impression upon not only human beings, but our brethren; our mestizo brothers and sisters across the Western Hemisphere.

The use of "illegal," by any person much less a fellow Latino, as a description of an entire race of people envelopes all of us in a poisonous cloud of racism, discrimination, bias and unfairness. It dishonors our ancestors who helped make this country rich and great; fought and died in its wars; marched, beaten, jailed and died in its streets for justice and peace.

Mr. Mejia, your heartless and insensitive comments make us severely question the Latino support of your candidacy. We demand that you immediately cease and desist from ever using such a detestable label again when describing your own people.



Rudy Gonzales Mannie Rodriguez Don Sandoval Lidia J. Ortiz Jimmy Lovato John Garcia Dr. Efrain Martinez

Editor's note, 8:18 a.m. April 21: The original version of the letter above included among its signatories Theresa Solano, president and CEO of the Latina Chamber of Commerce. Solano left a message with Westword asking that we remove her name, because she never gave approval for it to be used in association with the letter.

Mejia campaign release:

Mejia applauds Senate passage of ASSET Bill

Calls for Denver delegation and full State House to quickly pass bill

DENVER -- Denver Mayoral Candidate James Mejia today reiterated his support of SB 126, the ASSET Bill which provides undocumented students access to higher education and called for quick passage of the bill by the Colorado State House of Representatives.

Last week the Colorado Senate passed, the Colorado ASSET bill that would allow undocumented high school graduates to attend Colorado's colleges and universities while paying in-state tuition.

"This is a bold and courageous action and I applaud the Colorado Senate for the passage of the ASSET bill. Out of state tuition can triple the cost of a college education, making it out of reach for most high school graduates. We must have an educated workforce to rebuild our economy and move Denver forward," said Mejia. "The passage of SB 126 is critical to our future economic success as a city. I encourage Denver's delegation and all of Colorado's Representatives to quickly pass this bill in the Colorado House."

The ASSET bill would allow undocumented high school graduates to pay unsubsidized in-state tuition at Colorado's colleges and universities. Upon graduation, the student will have twelve months to apply and be accepted at one of Colorado's institutions of higher learning. The ASSET bill has broad public support from local government, the business community, seven Metro school districts and K-12 and higher education boards of trustees and organizations.

"Senators Angela Giron and Michael Johnston have fought hard to give all high school graduates access to higher education. I join them in that effort and look forward to the day when all of Colorado's students are treated equally," Mejia added.

About James Mejia:

James is a Denver native from a family of 13 children raised in Park Hill. He is a graduate of East High School, the University of Notre Dame, Arizona State University and Princeton University. He began his work with the City when as a college student he worked summers for Denver Parks and Rec to help pay his tuition, and later went on to become Manager of the Department for Mayor Webb. James has served on the DPS School Board, elected as an at-large member, is the founding CEO of the Denver Preschool Program and was recruited by Mayor Hickenlooper to lead the development of the Denver Justice Center, a $425 million bond project which he delivered on time and on budget. He is one of Denver's most respected leaders having received the 2009 Community Leader of the Year from 9News and the Denver Chamber Leadership Foundation. James is married to Dr. Heather Riley. They have three girls; seven-year old "twins by marriage," Moya and Alexandra and one year old Riley.

More from our Politics archive: "James Mejia wraps up campaign to sleep his way around the city on his quest to become mayor."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts