In a year that Sen. Julie Gonzales called “transformative” for immigrants in Colorado, lawmakers passed more than a dozen bills aimed at helping a population they say suffered disproportionally over the last year.
Several have been signed into law, including HB21-1075, repealing the use of the term “illegal alien” in state statute; HB21-1057, expanding the state’s criminal extortion law to prohibit threatening to report a person’s immigration status to take advantage of them; HB21-1054, allowing immigrants without documentation to apply for housing assistance; and SB21-077, removing lawful presence as a requirement for professional licensing.
“Crisis exacerbates inequality,” Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and bill sponsor, said. “I say that all the time, but it is true. And the pandemic and all of the other crises that we experienced this year really laid bare so many of the gaps and the inequities that exist … the barriers that immigrants and refugees have to navigate and overcome in order to achieve prosperity.”
On Friday afternoon, Gov. Jared Polis signed four more laws to support immigrants and refugees — HB21-1150, creating the state Office of New Americans; HB21-1194, establishing an immigrant legal defense fund; SB21-199, repealing lawful presence as a requirement to receive certain public benefits; and SB21-131, protecting residents’ personal data from being shared with Immigration, Customs and Enforcement unless required by a judge.
Alleviating “that fear”
Laura Peniche, a 37-year-old Aurora resident, immigrated to Colorado 24 years ago with her brothers and dad. She was able to get Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, which allows young people who came to the U.S. unlawfully as children to be temporarily shielded from deportation. Her father didn’t have protections.
So when she learned through her work with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition that the DMV shared information with ICE, she worried about her dad, who recently died of cancer. He had a driver’s license (immigrants without documentation could get licenses after a 2013 law), so the DMV may have already given his information to ICE and he could have potentially been apprehended when out in public.
“Knowing how vulnerable my father was with his illness, knowing that just made it really scary to try to go out to doctors’ appointments or try to go out to places, knowing that his information was not protected,” she said. “That’s why I’m really grateful that this data privacy bill passed, because I know that fear, it’s something that our undocumented community carries here.”
Other bills are still waiting for the governor’s signature such as SB21-009 to provide immigrants without documentation affordable access to birth control, and HB21-1266 to inform disproportionately impacted communities of air quality problems.
A changing tide
Fifteen years ago, it was a different story, with Democrats and Republicans voting in favor of policies that were considered among the toughest in the nation on illegal immigration.
In 2006, Colorado was one of the first states to pass a “show me your papers” law (repealed in 2013), requiring police to report those suspected of living in the country without legal permission to ICE. Lawmakers passed bills preventing immigrants without documentation from receiving state benefits and prohibited the state from contracting with employers who hired them. Both of those are repealed with the passage of SB21-199.
First-year lawmaker Sen. Cleave Simpson, an Alamosa Republican, doesn’t view the sea change as positive, saying it will attract more immigrants without documentation to Colorado. Simpson said he evaluated each bill on what could help his rural community, even voting in favor of some bills that other Republicans didn’t support. But he drew the line at the housing assistance bill.
“I just play by the rules and I expect other folks to do the same and try to find the unique balance to build, not reward people for bad or illegal behavior, but, again, recognize they’re human beings and trying to treat them with dignity and respect,” Simpson said.
For years, Colorado was in a middle ground for introducing new immigrant-inclusive policies while dealing with past policy implications, said Edelina Burciaga, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver. Now, she said the state has become a leader in pro-immigrant legislation.
“I would kind of put Colorado more on the continuum of states that are looking to integrate all immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, and create a welcoming climate,” she said.
An ICE spokesperson did not comment on specific bills but said in a statement that the agency focuses its efforts on “threats to national security, border security and public safety.”
Colorado has about 190,000 immigrants without documentation, according to the latest data available, and 1 in 10 residents are immigrants.
Rep. Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, is the only immigrant in the legislature this year and sponsored several of the bills, including the immigrant legal defense fund.
“We are very prevalent,” Ricks said. “We are a part of the fabric of Colorado. We are what makes Colorado work. … We’re a very significant part that needs to be recognized and be included in the policies in the state.”
That’s why removing the legal residency requirement for licenses was important to Metro State University senior and immigrant Monserrat Ariza. She’s studying speech language and hearing sciences and wants to get licensed in the state to pursue her dream of working with autistic children.
“Finally, all this hard work that people have done, it’s going to be recognized and they’re going to be able to help the people they want to work with,” she said.
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