2021 brought progressive immigration policies to Colorado

New laws nix proof of lawful presence for benefits and licenses, establish legal defense fund

By: - November 17, 2021 4:55 am
Colorado Capitol

The Colorado State Capitol dome peeks above the foliage at Civic Center Park on June 11, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Newsline)

Read the companion piece to this article:

The pandemic has been hard. It’s been harder on immigrants.

The 2021 legislative session brought a series of wins for immigrant advocates in Colorado. Democrats, who hold the majority in the House and Senate and control the governor’s office, passed sweeping legislation affecting immigrants from all backgrounds. Some bills garnered bipartisan support, but most passed without it — and with little vocal opposition.

Lawmakers championed legislation that did away with barriers to resources, including professional and business licenses, for Colorado immigrants lacking proper documentation. They created a no-cost reproductive health care program for undocumented people, and established data privacy protections to prevent state agencies from feeding personal information to immigration enforcement. And those are just a few examples.

Read on for a summary of 12 new Colorado laws aimed at improving the lives of immigrants.

Housing assistance

On April 15, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill that effectively got rid of Colorado’s 2006-era requirement to prove lawful presence in the U.S. before receiving housing assistance.

House Bill 21-1054 — sponsored by Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, in the House and Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, in the Senate — immediately began allowing people to access state and local housing benefits regardless of immigration status.

Colorado Democrats
From left: Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, D-Arvada; Sens. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Boulder County; and Reps. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, and Tracey Bernett, D-Boulder County, are pictured at a news conference on gun legislation April 29, 2021, at the state Capitol. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Professional licenses

Gonzales also sponsored Senate Bill 21-77, along with Democratic Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County and Cathy Kipp of Fort Collins. Polis signed the bill into law on May 27.

The law removed another state mandate to verify lawful presence in order to receive professional licenses issued by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, as well as local governments. Before SB-77, such requirements barred undocumented people and those protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program from getting jobs that require a license — even if they’ve completed a college degree or other training requirements for a specific credential.

Public benefits

State legislation that passed in 2006 with bipartisan support made it illegal for Colorado agencies to provide public assistance to people who couldn’t verify lawful presence in the U.S. The previously mentioned HB-1054 and SB-77 focused on specific consequences of the 2006 legislation.

Senate Bill 21-199 — sponsored by Democratic Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County and Faith Winter of Westminster, along with House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat — repealed additional 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.

Besides enabling state and local governments to issue benefits to undocumented immigrants, advocates hoped the new legislation would allow people without proper documentation to obtain child care licenses, helping alleviate the state’s shortage of licensed providers. Proponents also said it would save agencies money by alleviating the need to verify lawful presence.

Polis added his signature on June 25.

Reproductive health care

Jaquez Lewis, with Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton, championed legislation to establish a no-cost reproductive health care program for low-income Coloradans without proper documentation. Polis signed Senate Bill 21-9 into law July 6.

Through the program, people who can’t meet the federal requirement to prove lawful status in the U.S. but would otherwise qualify for Medicaid will be able to access contraceptive services and counseling, starting in 2022. The program will be housed in the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Limit ICE’s access to information

Senate Bill 21-131 grew out of concerns that the Division of Motor Vehicles was sharing the personal information of immigrants without proper documentation. The new law — which Polis signed June 25 — prevents state agencies from sharing non-public personal identifying information with federal immigration authorities except when they’re ordered to do so by a court of law.

Gonzales and Gonzales-Gutierrez crafted the legislation when they learned state employees helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtain undocumented Coloradans’ personal information.

SB-131 addresses “that foundation of trust that has been broken here in Colorado because of the interactions that we have seen between ICE and state departments such as the DMV,” Gonzales-Gutierrez told Newsline in June. “We want to rebuild that trust, and that’s really what the bill was about.”

Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez
Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 21-116 on the House floor June 2, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Office of New Americans

Legislators passed House Bill 21-1150 in an effort to make Colorado a more welcoming state for immigrants of all backgrounds.

Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat, and Gonzales sponsored the legislation, which creates the Office of New Americans within the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The office is tasked with promoting integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees across Colorado. It will be a point of contact for state agencies, public and private organizations serving immigrants, and the members of the public who need information and resources regarding immigration-related issues.

The office will expand previous efforts by the grant-funded New American Initiative, which advised Polis’ administration on ways the state could better serve its immigrant population. Polis signed HB-1150 into law on June 25.

Legal representation

This year, Colorado will join the small group of states that have created a fund to help low-income people obtain legal representation in immigration cases. Unlike defendants in criminal cases, people who face deportation from the United States don’t have the right to a public defender who will fight for them in immigration court regardless of their ability to pay.

House Bill 21-1194 establishes an immigration legal defense cash fund managed by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Up to $90,000 from the state’s general fund is available for grants in the fiscal year ending July 1, and $100,000 the following year. The fund can also accept private gifts, grants and donations.

Interested organizations can apply for grants as early as this fall, with the recipients selected starting Jan. 31, 2022.

Reps. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat, and Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, sponsored HB-1194 along with Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. Polis signed the bill into law on June 25.

No coercion

Before 2021, Colorado already considered it criminal extortion to threaten to report someone’s immigration status in order to convince them to provide money or valuables. A bipartisan effort in the Legislature this year expanded the definition of that crime to include coercing someone into doing something — or not doing something — by threatening to report their immigration status.

Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, and Tipper, along with Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, and Rodriguez, joined forces on House Bill 21-1057. Polis signed the bill into law on May 20.

No more ‘illegal alien’

House Bill 21-1075 replaces the term “illegal alien,” which immigrant advocates view as derogatory and dehumanizing, in government contracts. State and local agencies must update their contract templates this year to instead use the term “worker without authorization” to refer to someone without proper documentation.

Susan Lontine
State Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, speaks about community revitalization grants during a news conference Oct. 7, 2021, at Wonderbound dance company in Denver. To her right are Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Denver, and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County.(Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Polis signed HB-1075 into law on April 15. Its sponsors included Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat, and Gonzales in the Senate.

Wage replacement

Senate Bill 21-233 directs the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to study the possibility of creating a wage-replacement program, similar to unemployment benefits, for undocumented immigrants who lose work. The program would be administered by a nonprofit, third-party entity.

CDLE must submit the study recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by Dec. 1 of this year.

Rodriguez and Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, sponsored SB-233 in the Senate, along with Benavidez and Gonzales-Gutierrez in the House.

U visas

With House Bill 21-1060, lawmakers aimed to make it easier for immigrants who are victims of crimes to receive a U visa. The U visa program provides up to 10,000 undocumented immigrants per year with a temporary immigration status, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. for a limited period of time without fear of deportation. U visa recipients must demonstrate that they have helped, are helping or would be likely to help in a criminal investigation.

Chris Hansen and Dominick Moreno
Sens. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Tammy Story, D-Conifer, are pictured in the Senate chamber on May 26, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

After three years, U visa recipients can apply for lawful permanent residence, also known as a green card.

Gonzales-Gutierrez and Jodeh, along with Gonzales, worked together on HB-1060. The bill — which Polis signed into law May 10 — requires state and local law enforcement to inform eligible crime victims about their right to apply for a U visa. It sets a deadline for law enforcement officials to approve or deny a U visa request, dictates which the factors that may be considered for approval and denial, and prohibits law enforcement from sharing certain information about U visa applicants with federal immigration authorities.

Ag worker protections

Senate Bill 21-87, which Polis signed on June 25, extends many of the same worker protections that already exist for other industries to agriculture.

The new law allows agricultural workers to unionize, requires employers to pay them a minimum wage and starts a rulemaking process to set overtime pay standards. It also provides protection from retaliation for workers who report safety concerns. SB-87’s sponsors, all Democrats, include Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Moreno, along with Rep. Karen McCormick of Longmont and Caraveo.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, community advocates known as promotores — part of a statewide coalition called Project Protect Food Systems — brought public health resources to farming and ranching communities across Colorado.

“We quickly saw how the lack of legal protections or rights meant farm workers were being treated as expendable while doing essential work to keep our state fed,” Fatuma Emmad, co-convener of Project Protect Food Systems and a Denver-based farmer, said in a June statement.

Advocates working with Project Protect joined with labor groups and immigrant advocates to get behind SB-87. They were opposed by industry organizations representing farmers and ranchers, who said the bill’s new requirements would decimate their businesses at a difficult time for Colorado agriculture.


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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.