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Democrats advance historic slate of legislation to aid Colorado’s unauthorized immigrants, roll back restrictions

Senate Bill 199 would repeal language barring immigrants in the U.S. illegally from accessing state and local public benefits. It’s among several bills that would affect Colorado immigrants.

The Colorado State Capitol in Denver is pictured during the first day of the General Assembly's 73rd regular legislative session on Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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State lawmakers this year are advancing a historic slate of legislation aimed at assisting the estimated nearly 200,000 Coloradans living in the U.S. illegally, including through measures to shield them from federal immigration authorities and granting them access to state-funded benefits and services. 

The bills would also remove requirements that people prove legal residency to receive professional and business licenses, and create a state program to provide free birth control care and counseling for low-income immigrants without legal status. 

The Colorado Sun identified 11 bills debated at the legislature this year focused on immigrants, including four that have already been signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis.

“Not even a decade ago, it was considered a win to be able to pass one immigration-related bill in an entire legislative session,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and one of the fiercest immigrant advocates in the Colorado legislature. “Because of the work that’s happened outside of this building, because of the activism of undocumented people sharing their stories and speaking for themselves, there has been a sea change.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Several of the bills are sponsored by lawmakers who are first-generation Americans. Aurora Democrat Rep. Naquetta Ricks, whose family fled Liberia in the 1980s, is the prime sponsor of legislation to provide legal assistance to people facing deportation. Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat who is Palestinian American, is pushing for the creation of a statewide office to promote the economic stability and integration of immigrants statewide.

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Republican lawmakers are opposed to several of the measures, arguing the legislation delves into an area where state government — and Colorado taxpayer dollars — don’t belong. 

But Gonzales said she’s seen a willingness from some Republicans in the legislature to consider her bills that would aid people living in the country unlawfully. They may not be voting en masse for her policies, but they are willing to engage and she feels that’s significant progress.

“I think the pandemic really reminded people that if we don’t help each other — we’re all we’ve got. And so let’s do better. Let’s not just go back to normal,” she said. 

Here’s a rundown on the major legislation affecting immigrants in Colorado so far this year.

Removing requirements to prove legal residency

In 2006, Colorado lawmakers passed bills requiring Coloradans prove their legal residency in the U.S. to access a broad slate of state and federal aid or to get a professional or business license. The measures also prohibited public contracts with companies that employ people who are in the country illegally. 

Now, Democratic state lawmakers want to repeal those restrictions. 

Senate Bill 199 would remove a broad state prohibition on providing state and local public benefits to people in the country illegally, including housing assistance, welfare and food assistance. It also gets rid of a requirement that people must prove legal status in order to obtain a professional, occupational or business license. 

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It’s difficult to estimate how many more people would access state and local public benefits as a result of the bill, what programs would be affected, and how much that could cost. But, if passed, the bill would remove a barrier that had prevented people in the U.S. illegally from accessing a broad swath of state programs. 

“It means you can’t use someone’s immigration status as a reason to deny them benefits,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. 

Nonpartisan legislative staff estimated state costs could increase by up to $12.1 million. That excludes programs funded by the federal government.

Winter argues that estimate is inflated. “That assumes every single undocumented immigrant is going to access every single program that they could qualify for and be approved for every single program,” Winter said. 

The measure also expands the type of identification that state agencies can accept, in part by repealing the 2003 Secure and Verifiable Identity Act, a Colorado law requiring state agencies to only accept certain documents issued by the state or federal government. Many people living in the U.S. illegally don’t have access to the types of identification paperwork required to apply for licenses and other state programs, advocates say. 

Senate Bill 199 was advanced by the Senate State Affairs Committee with the panel’s two Republicans voting no. 

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address in front of the House of Representatives at the Colorado Capitol Building on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Similarly, Senate Bill 77 eliminates requirements that the Department of Education and Department of Regulatory Agencies verify legal status before issuing professional, occupational and business licenses. DORA regulates a broad number of licenses, including those for barbers, cosmetologists, medical professionals and plumbers. 

That bill is on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature. 

House Bill 1054, which has already been signed into law by Polis, removes requirements that people must prove legal residency to apply for state housing programs, including those offering vouchers, down payment assistance and home rehabilitation. 

Immigration Legal Defense Fund

Democratic state lawmakers are also pushing to help pay for lawyers for low-income people facing deportation and other proceedings in immigration court. 

“Immigration detention remains the only legal procedure in the nation where someone can be detained without the right to a government funded lawyer if they cannot afford one,” said Ricks, a prime sponsor of House Bill 1194

The bill would create a statewide legal defense fund to award grants to groups providing legal representation to people in immigration court. Groups helping clients facing deportation would receive 70% of the grant money. 

In addition to $100,000 in one-time general fund dollars, the Department of Labor and Employment can also seek grants for and accept donations to the fund.

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Rep. Terri Carver of Colorado Springs, who voted against House Bill 1194 along with all other Republicans in the House, said the fund isn’t an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. Carver noted the bill doesn’t have any guidelines for the types of clients that grantees can represent. 

“There’s nothing in the bill that would tell the nonprofit grant recipients doing the representative work, don’t utilize Colorado taxpayer money in a deportation hearing if the individual in question has a criminal conviction,” Carver said. 

The measure is now headed to the Senate after being approved in the House. 

Reproductive health program

People in the country illegally are only eligible for a limited number of federal benefit programs, such as emergency medical assistance under Medicaid. 

Senate Bill 9 would use state general fund dollars to pay for birth control and related counseling for low-income immigrants who would otherwise be eligible for coverage if not for their lack of citizenship or legal residency. 

Immigrants living in the U.S. legally, for example, generally become eligible for certain public health benefits after five years, including programs like Child Health Plan Plus and Medicaid. 

“This is levelling the playing field in terms of economic issues, so that they can act and decide when they want to have a family,” said state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. 

The following services would be covered under Senate Bill 9: 

  • A 12-month supply of any contraceptive drug, device or product approved by the FDA
  • Services for inserting or removing birth control devices, and administering or managing birth control and its side effects
  • Counseling related to birth control and reproductive care 

An estimated 27,000 people would be eligible for the program, according to a fiscal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff. If all of those people enrolled, the program would prevent an estimated 200 unintended pregnancies annually, according to the analysis. 

Senate Bill 9 would cost $4.2 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year and more than $3.1 million the following fiscal year, according to the fiscal analysis. Those costs are related to adding new staff and operational costs within the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, as well as the direct cost of providing services. 

The measure was approved by the Senate 20-15 along party lines and is under consideration in the House. 

Office of New Americans 

House Bill 1150 would establish an Office of New Americans within the Department of Labor and Employment. The office would serve as a coordination hub for immigrant-focused programs, policies and services statewide, and is tasked with formulating a statewide strategy and recommendations for supporting immigrants and their families.

The office would work with nonprofit and community organizations to reduce barriers to employment and help people attain citizenship and connect with English-language learning programs. It would also coordinate with the existing Colorado Refugee Services Program, which provides assistance and resettlement support to refugees. 

Several Republicans in the House took issue with how the bill defines an immigrant or “new American,” noting that the language would allow unauthorized immigrants to access services covered by the office.

“I don’t believe this is the proper role of the state government, especially as it relates to immigration or those who are coming over, however they did come over,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican who unsuccessfully sought an amendment to exclude immigrants without legal status from getting aid from the proposed office. 

Colorado state Rep. Dave Williams, R-Coloroad Springs, addresses the House during the first day of Colorado’s 73rd legislative session at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Office of New Americans would be funded by grants and donations through the 2022-23 fiscal year, after which it could begin receiving state funding. 

Polis already has a New Americans Initiative and an adviser tasked with identifying gaps in services and support for refugees and immigrants living in the country illegally. Polis has been criticized for a lack of transparency surrounding private gifts to his office, including a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that funds the New Americans Initiative. 

The $145,000 grant from the foundation would be redirected toward the salary for the ONA director, according to a fiscal analysis from nonpartisan legislative staff. 

House Bill 1150 passed the House without the support of Republican lawmakers and is under consideration in the Senate.

Protecting personal information

Lawmakers also want to bar state agencies from sharing “personal identifying information” with immigration authorities that is not publicly available. 

Senate Bill 131 would prohibit state agencies and their employees from sharing a broad swath of private, personal information for the purpose of assisting or cooperating with federal immigration authorities, including a person’s:

  • Birth date, Social Security or tax identification number
  • Photographs
  • Medical or financial information
  • Home or work address 
  • Family or contact information
  • License plate number or car registration information

The measure also prohibits state agencies from collecting information like place of birth and immigration or citizenship status, except as part of the agency’s duties, such as verifying a person’s eligibility for benefits. For information collected in state-maintained databases, third parties requesting that information must promise not to use it to help immigration authorities.

Senate Bill 131 was approved by the Senate 25-10 with the support of five Republicans, and is now under consideration in the House. 

Other bills signed into law

Polis already signed into law three measures that passed the General Assembly earlier this year. 

House Bill 1060 aims to speed up the processing of obtaining a U visa, a type of visa granted to immigrants who are victims of crime, have suffered physical or mental abuse, and who are cooperating with law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting a crime. 

The goal bill adds deadlines to the process of obtaining a U visa, so that immigrants who are crime victims can get a visa in a timely manner and avoid deportation. 

Another measure signed into law, House Bill 1075, removes the term “illegal alien” from state contracts for services and replaces it with “worker without authorization.” Immigrant advocates argue referring to people as being “illegal” is derogatory and dehumanizing. 

Finally, House Bill 1057 prohibits a person from threatening to report an immigrant’s citizenship status to authorities for extortion. The measure was approved unanimously. 

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report. 

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