Colorado’s Undocumented Immigrants Have Been Shut Out Of Benefits And Licensed Jobs For 15 Years. A New Bill Would Change That

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado State Capitol, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

Olivia began babysitting as a teenager to earn extra money for her family. Now in her 30s, she recently earned an early childhood education credential and dreams of starting a licensed child care business in her home.

But that won’t happen under current Colorado law.

Olivia is an undocumented immigrant; she came to the U.S. at 10 years old and is now trying to become a citizen. She asked Colorado Public Radio News to only use her middle name out of fear her participation in a story could negatively affect her citizenship application. 

“We are people who are trying to do better,” she said. “We’re trying to do it right. If you only see it, like ‘it’s just a license….’ Oh no! It’s our future. It’s our little kids’ future.”

A provision in Colorado law bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional certification, the kind of documentation required for everyone from child care providers and dental hygienists to electricians and lawyers.

Some state lawmakers and immigrant rights activists think this is the year to remove that restriction. The same coalition is working to roll back a ban on cities and counties providing public benefits to people who are living in the state illegally.

Both policies date back to 2006. That year, the Democratic-controlled legislature struck a deal with the state’s Republican governor to pass a raft of new laws limiting services and benefits for undocumented immigrants. At the time those policies were considered some of the strictest in the country.  

Attempt at an inclusive economy

“These old laws are keeping people from participating in the full economic recovery that we know we need right now, as we hopefully start to come out of the COVID pandemic,” said Democratic Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Longmont, who will be one of the main sponsors of the professional licensing bill, which is expected to be introduced later this week. 

Another set of Democratic lawmakers have already introduced a similar bill tackling licensing

Undoing the 2006 legislation has long been a goal of immigrant rights advocates and some Democratic politicians. As Democrats have gained more power in the state, other elements of the package have been repealed, like a “show me your papers”-style law requiring police to report suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE.  And advocates say COVID-19 has provided the impetus to tackle what remains on the books. 

Jaquez Lewis said the pandemic has laid bare the inequities communities of color encounter. She pitches the bills as part of a larger effort Democratic lawmakers are forging to try to rebuild the state’s economy in a way they think is more equitable and inclusive.

“We can continue to take an ice pick to an iceberg, or we can just bulldoze the whole thing and make it easier for our entire communities to … reach and achieve economic sustainability and security,” said Lorena Garcia.She heads the Statewide Parent Coalition, which works with immigrant and Latino families, and has been instrumental in crafting the legislation.

But this latest push is sure to face political blowback.

Critics point to strained system

When asked about the idea of making it possible for undocumented immigrants to access public benefits, Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf rejected it as setting a bad precedent. Holtorf, who represents an expansive mostly rural district in the southeastern part of the state, also questioned whether opening benefits to more people could overstrain the system. 

“Is it going to degrade the services that citizens get when you attempt to offer these services to non-citizens?” he asked.

GOP Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, considered one of the legislature’s most moderate members, also rejected the ideas. In his view, lawmakers have more pressing concerns than broadening who could potentially qualify for state benefits or changing professional licensing requirements.

“Let's take care of the people right now that need the benefits rather than import more,” said Coram. He said many of his constituents are still dealing with the daily fallout from the pandemic and not getting unemployment benefits they’re entitled to. 

“I talked to a lady today, she hasn't got her checks she's due. She's worried that her car is going to be repossessed. She can't pay the rent, and she doesn't have groceries. So let's fix those problems first,” he said. 

Coram said he’d be more likely to back a narrower licensing bill that only applied to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. “This is not going to solve anything because our immigration system is broken. It is totally broken. And the problem is that we have neither side in Washington, DC that wants to fix it. So we need a fix now.”

Democrats in the U.S. Senate recently introduced a bill with president Biden’s blessing that would provide a path to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Both of Colorado’s senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, are included as co-sponsors.

Undocumented immigrants already in the workforce

Backers of the effort to change Colorado’s laws note that undocumented workers are an active part of the state’s workforce, especially in the agricultural industry. They argue those workers should receive more benefits and opportunities because they’re contributing a lot to the economy. 

“I don't think a lot of people understand how much of their food is produced by undocumented workers. Because, you know, hiring help out here, we get three illegals compared to one legal person all the time,” said the owner of an agricultural company on the Eastern Plains. He asked CPR News to remain anonymous because he employs undocumented workers and fears he or they could face retaliation in their small community if he were to be identified publicly. 

He thinks letting his workers and others both access public benefits and apply for licensed positions would only increase their contributions to the community.

“They'll be there for years. I mean, they work hard. They're great people,” he said. “And I think if something like this would happen it would make them feel more ownership in what they're doing at the job.”