Immigration haze

Local effect of laws not yet clear, officials say

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— New state laws designed to address illegal immigration may not have much of an effect locally, a county official said this week.

"I don't think that it will impact us at all," said Bob White, director of Routt County's Department of Human Services. "But we're all going to need some time to sort this out."

White was talking about the results of a five-day special session of the state Legislature. In the session, which ended Monday, Colorado lawmakers approved a package of laws that limits illegal immigrants' access to state-funded public benefits and increases penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

White is not the only one who needs time to sort out the proposed laws. Democrats say the measures create one of the toughest crackdowns on illegal immigration in the country, and many Republicans argue that the laws don't go far enough and that Colorado voters should be asked to change the state constitution.

In an election year, how to manage the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in Colorado -- and their effect on funding for state services -- has become an issue with a divisiveness similar to gay marriage or abortion.

"It's obviously a very political issue," said Summer Laws, director of Comunidad Integrada, a local nonprofit organization that helps more than 1,500 Spanish-speaking residents integrate into Routt County communities.

Laws said a lack of federal action could decrease the effectiveness of the proposed state laws.

"Because it's not happening at the federal level and not affecting the influx of people coming here, it's basically making more work for state and local workers," she said.

White said the laws likely will not impact county human services because much of the funding used by his department does not come from the state.

"Most of the programs that we offer are federal entitlement programs, like food assistance, child welfare services and foster care," he said. "Those are federal programs that are federally funded."

White said he and Mary Sue Sorensen, of the county finance office, could not yet assess which public services the proposed laws would impact.

"We're not going to be able to do any direct analysis at this point in the game," he said Friday.

On the roller coaster

Two key pieces of legislation from the special session are House Bill 1023 and House Bill 1017. Both have bipartisan support and require only the signature of Gov. Bill Owens to become law.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, crafted HB 1023 with Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Coal Creek Canyon. The bill requires anyone 18 or older to possess valid identification, such as a driver's license, military ID or state-issued ID card, when applying for state-funded public benefits such as disability and housing assistance. Owens supports the bill, which if made law would be effective Aug. 1.

On Tuesday morning, just hours after the special session ended, Romanoff said he was exhausted after five days of a "roller coaster" session.

"It was definitely emotionally charged," he said about the climate at the Capitol. "In some ways it was a tale of two sessions. On the one hand, it was folks making fire and brimstone speeches at the microphone. But if you looked past the floor show, you could find quiet and constructive policy analysis going on."

Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, represents House District 57, which includes Routt County.

He has criticized the session for producing "virtually nothing" that will cause substantive change and for bowing down to big business.

White said Owens lessened support for White's House Bill 1018, which would have required all employers to receive valid identification from potential employees, after Owens had an early morning conversation -- during the special session -- with a major Denver homebuilder, who said housing costs would rise if HB 1018 passed.

"I was totally frustrated and totally disappointed when I came face to face with the reality that big business in Colorado was not going to allow effective change to immigration laws," White said Tuesday.

Fitz-Gerald said HB 1018 would hurt Colorado businesses. The bill failed in a Senate committee. Instead, the Legislature approved House Bill 1017, which would allow the state Department of Labor and Health to audit businesses suspected of hiring violations, and issue fines of $25,000 for multiple violations.

White criticized HB 1017 as "not doing anything to stem the tide."

"(HB 1018) would have sent a message that would have prevented employees from even seeking employment in Colorado," he said. "And that's the key."

Here to work

On Wednesday evening, Comunidad Integrada hosted a workshop in Steamboat Springs to improve communication skills for Spanish speakers.

About 10 people attended the workshop, held in the basement of Holy Name Catholic Church. Most of the attendees were not aware of the special session or the proposed laws, but they quickly formed opinions after learning of them.

"People who are coming here are coming here to work," said Freddy Villegas, a 26-year-old cook at the Best Western Ptarmigan Inn in Steamboat. He has lived in the United States for four years and is a legal resident with a driver's license.

Villegas said most immigrants he knows pay their taxes and pay for emergency health care. A recent study by the Bell Policy Center, a nonpartisan Denver think tank, agrees with him.

Released June 30, the study says undocumented immigrants in Colorado pay $159 million to $194 million a year in state and local taxes while costing state and local governments about $225 million a year. The paid amount equals between 70 and 86 percent of the costs for K-12 education, emergency health care and incarcerations associated with undocumented immigrants, according to the study.

Wade Buchanan, president of the center, said the center used "conservative assumptions" for their calculations and is "confident they provide a reasonably accurate picture of what is going on."

Villegas said accurate pictures about illegal immigration are hard to find.

"It's a very thin line to say 'good' or 'no good,'" he said. "It depends on how you see it."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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