Colorado lawmakers have introduced several bills this session meant to shield immigrants from being arrested over civil immigration violations — measures that would ban state agencies from sharing personal information with federal agencies and make it illegal to extort someone over their immigration status.
Democrats also want to strip derogatory language from a state law about immigrants working in the country without legal permission (the bill passed the House and awaits a vote in a Senate committee) and help immigrants who are living in the the country without legal permission get professional licenses and public benefits as well as access to contraceptives.
“Our work this year is to remove barriers and advance equity,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, who is sponsoring several of these bills. “And we know that immigrants and refugees, low-income workers, Black and brown Coloradans have been disproportionately impacted, or more likely to be on the front lines working in the midst of this pandemic and multiple crises.”
Here are details on four bills that would make significant changes to how the state interacts with immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal permission.
Protecting personal information
This week, a committee voted to send to the Senate floor a bill that would prevent state agencies from sharing personal information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that could be used against them.
The issue is a priority bill for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. The group confirmed through a Colorado Open Records Request last year that the state DMV and ICE were sharing information about immigrants. Colorado passed a law in 2013 that allowed immigrants who are living in the country without legal permission to get driver’s licenses or ID cards, about 150,000 of which have been issued.
Although the DMV has implemented some changes since the CORA request, Gonzales said it needs to become law.
If passed and signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the bill would expand an executive order the governor issued during the pandemic to limit data sharing with ICE except as required by state or federal law and to track ICE’s requests.
Republicans on the Senate State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted against the bill this week — except for GOP Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa.
An ICE spokesperson said the agency could not comment on pending legislation, but the agency has defended partnerships with local law enforcement for immigration enforcement.
Legal defense fund
Under a bill that has been introduced but has not yet had a hearing, the state Department of Human Services would provide grants to nonprofits that would help immigrants who can’t otherwise afford it with legal assistance.
Bill sponsor Rep. Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, said her family’s arrival in the United States would have gone smoother had they had access to legal representation. Ricks, who was 13 at the time, and her family escaped a bloody military coup in 1980 in Liberia (though her mother’s fiance, a government official, was kidnapped and killed). Ricks’ family applied for asylum in the U.S. and was initially denied.
“Even though we had come through this devastating trauma, we still weren’t able to prove our case, and had we had an attorney, I think that would have made such a big difference in our ability to defend ourselves,” she said.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, immigrants who had legal representation were 10 times more likely to win their immigration cases and 3.5 times more likely to be released from detention on bond.
The majority of the money for the statewide defense fund would come from private donations and matching funding from nonprofits like the Vera Institute of Justice, bill co-sponsor Democratic Rep. Kerry Tipper of Lakewood.
“Ultimately, at its core, it’s a bill about justice about equity and about ensuring that someone who has legal rights in this country can vindicate those legal rights, and that they’re able to do that, regardless of their income or anything else,” Tipper said.
At least six other states have similar funds. Denver launched its own legal defense fund in 2018. Earlier this year, Aurora rejected a similar effort.
U Visa certifications
For the second year in a row, Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver, is looking to make U Visa certifications consistent and timely.
U Visas are granted to victims of crime who work with law enforcement and help them avoid deportation. While the visa application process is federal, the certification takes place on the local level. This bill would make the process the same across the state and add deadlines so that immigrants aren’t waiting years or even decades to hear back about whether they can apply for the visa.
Although the bill was sponsored by two Democrats, one Republican — Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington — voted to support the bill in committee last week.
Lynch said although he’s against people coming to the U.S. illegally, the U Visa only applies to those who are victims of crime who are already in the country.
“This also gets them into the system, so it puts them on a path to legal immigration, which I’m all for,” Lynch said.
The Colorado House approved the bill Wednesday and it’s headed to the Senate.
Immigrant extortion charge
One immigration bill that has received broader support — including unanimous passage in the House — would make it illegal to use someone’s immigration status for extortion.
In 2006, the Colorado Legislature made it illegal to threaten to report someone’s immigration status if they didn’t give them money or something of value, but it didn’t apply in all instances — like sexual coercion or an employer stiffing someone’s wages because of their status.
Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the bill would fix a gap in current state law. He recalled three cases his office prosecuted that wouldn’t have exactly fit what’s in the current statute. In one case last year, a general contractor either didn’t pay or shorted five subcontractors and threatened to report them to ICE when they asked for their money.
In a domestic violence case, he said, the abuser threatened to report a woman to ICE, which would have separated her from her kids, if she called the police on him. And in a third instance, a man who was living in the country legally but helped immigrants enter without proper documents forced two sisters into having sex with him and threatened to report them to ICE if they contacted police.
Dougherty said people have different views about immigration, as evidenced in the debate on some of the bills, “but I don’t know a single person who believes that one’s immigration status should be used to subject her to rape or domestic violence.”