‘Anti-immigrant’ barriers to public benefits, state licenses would be removed under bill

Gov. Polis signs bill expanding access to housing assistance for immigrants without proper documentation

(Getty Images)

After 2013’s devastating floods in Boulder County, now-state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis learned how Colorado laws were hurting undocumented families.

Legislation passed in 2006 made it illegal for the Boulder County Board of Health — where Jaquez Lewis served at the time — from providing assistance to families who couldn’t verify lawful presence in the U.S. One family whose mobile home was destroyed in the floods was able to rebuild their lives, she said, while the family next door could barely receive any help.

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“We were trying to help families who had lost everything in those three deadly days,” Jaquez Lewis recalled, speaking at an April 13 hearing of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. The reason? The 2006 legislation, passed during a special session of the Colorado General Assembly, means “everyone has to prove residency for basically everything.”

Senate Bill 21-199 — sponsored by Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County and Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster, both Democrats — would repeal provisions of the 2006 laws, allowing people to apply for certain state and local public benefits and licenses without providing proof of lawful presence in the U.S.

Sonya Jaquez Lewis
State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Boulder County, represents Colorado Senate District 17. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

The bill wouldn’t affect federal benefits, so it wouldn’t change existing eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, it would open some limited state resources such as community behavioral health, discounted primary care, and support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to people who are not citizens or green card holders and their family members.

It would also allow those people to obtain state and local professional and business licenses, such as those needed to open a child care facility or practice as a nurse.

Federal law prevents states or local governments from providing public benefits and licenses to people who aren’t lawfully present in the U.S., explained Allison Neswood, deputy director of strategic priorities for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Neswood worked with the bill sponsors to craft the legislation.

However, Neswood testified, federal law would allow Colorado to exempt itself from that “blanket ban” if the state repeals its 2006-era verification requirements and passes a law that “affirmatively provides for eligibility.”

“It’s unfortunate that our federal and state statutes are a tangle of anti-immigrant sentiment and outright discrimination,” Neswood said. “With SB-199, we have a significant opportunity to start rewriting that story.”

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who chairs the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, delayed a vote on SB-199 until April 20 to give lawmakers time to review several amendments the sponsors had requested.

During witness testimony at the bill’s first hearing April 13, Gonzales also brought up a potential issue with the bill. The bill states that the General Assembly should not allocate any additional money to benefit programs in the fiscal year that starts July 1 — even though more people would be eligible for those benefits.

That may have the effect of striking an amendment to next year’s budget that Gonzales introduced in the Senate, which would allocate $5 million in housing benefits for people who can’t prove lawful status, she said.

“I think you raise a good question, and I think that’s something that we should look (at) closely,” Neswood said.

The legislation would clarify what counties can and can’t do, and take away the administrative burden of verifying lawful presence, said Thomas Davidson, executive manager of Counties and Commissioners Acting Together, which advocates for a group of counties and individual county commissioners at the Capitol.

“Right now counties, because of this special legislation that was passed back in 2006, really have their hands tied with regard to any distribution of funds to people that are without documents,” Davidson said. “Some county attorneys, some municipal attorneys, feel that we have to extend that rule even to nonprofits that we work with to provide benefits to this community.”

Several people who testified on the bill noted that the legislation would make it easier for cities and counties to distribute federal coronavirus relief money to people who couldn’t verify lawful presence.

Jacy Montoya Price, advocacy director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign — which supports SB-199 — noted in an interview that the bill could lead to more licensed child care providers, of whom there is a shortage in the state.

“With this, we’re hoping that many of our informal child care providers who may or may not have documentation … will be able to become licensed, and provide that necessary infrastructure, service, within our communities,” Montoya Price said.

Other bills focus on specific types of licenses, benefits

Two other bills in the Colorado Legislature this year take a more focused approach to tackling circa-2006 challenges for immigrants without proper documentation. Both concern parts of what SB-199 would cover, and one has already been signed into law.

On April 15, Gov. Polis signed a bill that deals with the requirement to prove lawful presence: House Bill 21-1054, sponsored by Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, in the House; and Gonzales in the Senate. The new law allows people to access state and local housing benefits without being a citizen or green card holder, effective immediately.

And Gonzales is sponsoring a third bill, Senate Bill 21-77, along with Democratic Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County and Cathy Kipp of Fort Collins, that would remove the requirement that lawful presence be verified for professional licenses issued by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, as well as local governments. Currently, such requirements bar many undocumented people and those protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program from getting jobs even if they’ve completed a college degree or other training requirements for a specific credential.

SB-77 was approved on second reading in the House on April 16. It gets one more vote in the House before it moves back to the Senate for consideration of House amendments, and then on to the governor’s desk.

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