Aguilar and Herod: What Colorado can do to support our immigrant communities
Authors: Sen. Irene Aguilar, Leslie Herod - May 22, 2017 - Updated: May 19, 2017
Measures brought before the Colorado General Assembly in this legislative session have shown that the contentious national debate on immigration has been jolting our state’s politics as well. As the federal government has shifted its policies to penalize so-called sanctuary cities and aggressively deport immigrants, we’ve seen conflicting bills introduced here on whether our state and cities should cooperate with the government to enforce immigration laws. Good or bad, these legislative proposals remind us that we, in Colorado, truly have the power to change the lives of our immigrant communities.
Now more than ever, it’s important to remember that Colorado is an innovative and independent state, consistently recognized for our vibrant economy, healthy residents and quality of life. And it’s equally important to recognize the role that Colorado’s immigrants play in making our state so great. They are major contributors to our state’s agriculture and tourism industries, they own businesses that employ more than 83,000 Coloradans, they play a critical role in making Colorado competitive in STEM fields like aerospace and bioscience — and, they contribute to the rich fabric of our communities. We can and should do everything possible to improve immigrants’ quality of life — and that of all Coloradans as a result.
Consider recent legislative efforts to extend access to driver’s licenses for Colorado’s immigrants without documentation. House Bill 17-1206 sought to improve upon the law that allows immigrants without documentation to obtain a license, by fixing language that excluded many eligible individuals from the program and made renewals too cumbersome. Along with farmers and businesses associations, as well as more than 40 organizations that make up the I Drive Colorado campaign, we supported this bill because providing immigrants with driver’s licenses can significantly improve their health and well-being.
Being able to drive legally allows immigrants to access the health care and other resources they need to stay healthy and be productive participants in our communities. Barriers to transportation not only force people to delay care for themselves and their family, but also put other basic human needs out of reach, such as healthy food, safe housing, education opportunities and well-paying jobs. HB 17-1206 could have helped remove these barriers and improve the health and safety of all Coloradans. And yet, after passing the House with bipartisan support, the bill was regrettably voted down in the Senate Transportation Committee. We should be proud that Colorado is leading the nation as one of 12 states that offer driver’s licenses to immigrants without documentation, and passing measures like HB 17-1206 needs to become a priority if we want to uphold our state’s reputation as one of the best places to live for all families.
Colorado’s stellar reputation is due in large part to our flourishing economy. Our state is consistently ranked among the best performing and most innovative states, and has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. To continue thriving, our business community needs a healthy, productive workforce — and that includes healthy immigrants. But too many barriers still stand in the way of immigrants getting care, and that’s a huge liability for Colorado’s businesses.
Right now, immigrants cannot buy insurance, which often means they cannot afford to access basic or preventive care. Minor medical issues escalate to emergencies that can take employees out of the workforce for an extended period of time. This is an unnecessary and enormous risk for both employee and employer. And it’s a risk that’s simple to mitigate. We should implement policies that allow immigrants to purchase health insurance, access vital health services regardless of immigration status, and live without constant fear that the systems meant to help them could actually harm them without key protections in place. Colorado’s leading business groups and chambers of commerce have already expressed their support for pragmatic measures that advance immigrant rights, and we should work with them to make that a reality.
In the midst of tense debates on immigration, we also must remember that helping immigrant communities thrive now benefits all of us for decades to come. Colorado’s immigrant children and youth have incredible potential. In fact, 33 percent of Fortune 500 companies based in Colorado were founded by immigrants and their children, and our health care workforce relies on thousands of trained immigrants. But before immigrant children can become successful professionals and contribute to our economy, they need to be successful in school. Children do better in school when they’re healthy, and ensuring immigrant children can routinely see a doctor is a direct determinant of their ability to pursue an education and thrive. Colorado should join other states that have passed policies that specifically increase access to health care for immigrant children.
Looking ahead to the next legislative session, we will continue to advocate for policies that would have tremendous impact on our immigrant neighbors, business owners and employees, and children. We are committed to pursuing policy change that recognizes the invaluable contributions of Colorado’s immigrant families and allows them to thrive. Because when our neighbors are healthy, our communities prosper and Colorado is stronger.