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Colorado Lawmakers Consider Bills To Cover Public Benefits, Unemployment, Regardless Of Immigration Status

DENVER (CBS4) - People who are in the country unlawfully would have access to state, and possibly local, public benefits under a bill at the Colorado State Capitol. It's one of several immigration bills introduced this session.

The bills include a legal defense fund for those facing deportation, a special unemployment fund for undocumented workers, $4 million dollars for free contraception for women who are non-citizens, and access to state and local licenses, certificates, and registrations regardless of immigration status. There's also legislation to create the Colorado Office of New Americans to develop a strategy to help immigrants with economic stability and cultural integration.

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The public benefits bill is the most sweeping of the immigration bills.

"We're creating these different levels of access. So, this bill really is about access. It's about making the playing field even for everyone," said Sen. Sonya Jacquez Lewis, the sponsor of the bill.

The bill would remove lawful presence as a condition for public benefits including health care, housing assistance, welfare, disability and retirement benefits, as well as licenses, contracts, and grants. Local governments would have the option of doing the same.

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"It's really about making sure that folks that are applying for public benefits services are not having this extra requirement of proving lawful presence," explained Jacquez Lewis.

Sen. Sonya Jacquez Lewis (credit: CBS)

She says the lawful presence requirement is an unnecessary administrative burden. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg disagrees.

"Given what's happening at the border, Colorado will be a magnet if they pass this," said Sonnenberg.

Sonnenberg says the state has already borrowed a billion dollars to pay for unemployment for those here legally.

"So we're going to provide all of these different benefits, including health care, including things that quite honestly many of our own people can't afford to do, we're going to provide to people of illegal immigrant status," Sonnenberg said.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (credit: CBS)

Non-partisan fiscal analysts say the bill could end-up costing the state nearly $23 million dollars. Jacquez Lewis insists it's about equity.

"Regardless of their lawful presence and immigration status, it's who they are, and this allows everyone to be able to have those opportunities that we should all be able to have as Coloradans," she said.

The Senate State Affairs Committee debated the bill Tuesday afternoon but the vote was delayed.

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