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Colorado Democrats want to establish state-funded support system for migrants

A small busload of people arrive at an emergency shelter for migrants from the southern U.S. border set up at a Denver recreation center on Dec. 13, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A small busload of people arrive at an emergency shelter for migrants from the southern U.S. border set up at a Denver recreation center on Dec. 13, 2022.

Democratic lawmakers are trying to increase state support for migrants who have recently arrived in Colorado from the US-Mexico border with a bill working its way through the state legislature, but their efforts are limited by federal immigration law.

“Nonprofit organizations who have a history in supporting and serving this community have stepped up to provide navigation, housing, access to food, help with enrolling children in schools, help with workforce navigation, and even then it’s not enough,” bill sponsor Rep. Lorena Garcia said in a committee hearing this month. “What this bill is doing is establishing a support system to help the incredibly versatile and effective nonprofit infrastructure in our state to be able to do what they do even better.”

The bill would set aside $2.5 million dollars for established local organizations across the state that help migrants find jobs and other services like housing, healthcare, school and legal assistance. The funding would be distributed through a new welcome, reception and integration grant program, and could only be used to help individuals who are within one year of their arrival in the US.

Colorado has seen an influx of migrants since 2022. Almost 40,000 individuals have arrived in Denver from the southern border over the last year, costing the city almost $60 million. The number of migrants staying in city shelters fell to under 1,000 this week for the first time in six months.

Migrants are not only settling in Denver, however, and many are starting lives across the state, including in mountain communities and other rural areas. The bill’s other sponsor in the House, Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, is the first Mexican-born state lawmaker in Colorado history.

“This is a statewide issue. It’s a rural issue, an urban issue, and I believe that we have to work together,” Velasco said in an interview with KUNC. “We have to respond as regions, especially in our rural communities, because one small town is not able to respond. As we're building infrastructures that in many communities have never existed, we must make sure that they are long standing, and that we're able to continue to serve our communities.”

Velasco is also the first Latino to represent the Western Slope, and her district is centered around Glenwood Springs. The Roaring Fork Valley School District’s Family Resource Center is one organization that could benefit from the bill’s grants. They provide comprehensive family services to the Roaring Fork School District and have a team of bilingual liaisons that connect families to education.

“Today we are operating at the edge of our resources. This House bill offers a lifeline,” Kelly Medina, the Center’s director, said, testifying in support of the bill. “This will support the organizations that have been a cultural and linguistic bridge for migrants. This isn’t about funding. It’s about fortifying the very fabric of communities.”

Critics, including all the Republican lawmakers in this month’s committee hearing, argue legislating to support newcomers will encourage more migrants to come to Colorado.

“I believe that what this does is this now makes an announcement to the rest of the world that, if you want to get a good deal and get services, go to Colorado,” Republican Rep. Mike Lynch, who is also running for Congress in Colorado’s Fourth District, said in the hearing. “We’re now perpetuating the idea that this is a sanctuary state. I don’t think that’s the direction we want to go.”

Lynch also said that, while this is an issue that needs to be addressed, setting aside grant funding for organizations is not an efficient use of state money and too much will be spent on administrative and bureaucratic costs.

“These folks are here, right, so we’ve gotta figure out something to do with them,” Lynch said. “I think the real solution to this is figuring out how to put them to work.”

Only the federal government has the authority to grant employment authorization to migrants, not the state, so Colorado lawmakers have limited ability to make work more accessible to them. The process of applying and receiving work authorization for new arrivals can take almost a year.

Lynch and Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf, also a Congressional candidate, said the state Office of New Americans, which was created in 2021, should already be doing the work to integrate migrants.

The Office’s director, Dee Daniels Scriven, said it will be much more effective to empower community-based organizations.

“Right now, we don’t have a statewide infrastructure. We don’t have non-profit organizations that are given funding to provide services to new arrivals,” Scriven said. “We are now on the map, and we need to be able to have our nonprofit partners do the work that they do best, which is helping our new arrivals get up on their feet. While we are doing some of that work at the state, we don’t have a program in place like this.”

Scriven also said that, while the state does not control work authorization for migrants, local organizations play a major role in helping migrants through the application process.

“This does not have to be something that brings our city or our state down,” Scriven said. “We have huge talent shortages and workforce shortages in Colorado. Getting folks employment authorization not only helps them meet Colorado’s talent needs, then they’re also contributing taxpayer dollars. So, just with a little assistance up first, new arrivals can be huge contributors to Colorado communities.”

The bill was approved by this month’s legislative committee along party lines and is now awaiting debate on the House floor.
Copyright 2024 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Lucas Brady Woods