DENVER – State lawmakers adjourned their five-day special session late Monday after approving the last of a bipartisan package of bills Democrats called the toughest in the nation in dealing with illegal immigration, which would force 1 million people receiving state or federal aid in Colorado to verify their citizenship.
The cornerstone measure, supported by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, would deny most non-emergency state benefits to illegal immigrants 18 years old and older, forcing people to prove legal residency in Colorado when applying for benefits or renewing their eligibility.
Senators voted 22-13 on the bill, with four Democrats joining Republicans in voting no and eight Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes. Representatives voted 48-15 in favor.
"At the end of the day, everybody who serves in this building as senators or representatives knows we're making Colorado history," said the bill's sponsor, Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden. "We want to be able to look in the mirror and say we did legislation that is tough, enforceable and humane."
Opposing Republicans said the bill didn't go far enough, and left some glaring loopholes, including allowing benefits for minors and denying voters the chance to have a direct say on the issue, as they would have had under a proposed ballot initiative that the state Supreme Court disqualified last month.
It was that court ruling that prompted Owens to call lawmakers into the special session, which started Thursday. Some Republicans said was the best they could get while in the minority at the Capitol.
"This bill certainly does not go as far as my party would like it to go," said Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins. "But this is the best deal we can get under the circumstances."
Owens said he would have preferred to put a measure on the November ballot, but the compromise had significant requirements and penalties that would apply to Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, energy assistance programs and aging and adult services. He said an estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants could be thrown out of those programs.
"It simply puts teeth into existing federal regulations," Owens said.
After Rep. Dave Schultheis, a Republican from Colorado Springs who spent two nights along the border with a citizens militia said he would vote for the measure, Democratic policy analyst Mary Alice Mandarich and Owens' policy analyst Henry Sobanet could be seen hugging outside the House chamber, congratulating each other on the compromise.
Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, was one of the four Democrats to vote against the measure.
"While I think the bill was a more measured approach on benefits for illegal aliens, I can't get past the fact that we're going to be spending $1 million of taxpayer dollars for a problem that has not yet been established based on political exploitation from Republicans and political fear from Democrats," Grossman said. "I don't think the poor people of the state of Colorado or businesses of the state of Colorado should have to pay because we want to play politics with immigration."
The measure would require state and local government agencies to verify the immigration status of adults who apply for programs such as unemployment benefits, retirement benefits or public housing. Owens estimated about 1 million people in the state are receiving such benefits, and 20,000 to 50,000 of them are illegal immigrants.
The governor said he was disappointed that lawmakers did not pass a bill imposing deadlines on the state Supreme Court, which last month disqualified an initiative barring state services to illegal immigrants from the November ballot. The ruling came after a key deadline passed, in essence killing the initiative.
Owens declared the special session — which cost taxpayers an estimated $75,000 as of Monday night — a success.
Fred Elbel, director of Defend Colorado Now, the group that backed the ballot proposal, said he was satisfied and would also back the compromise.
"It looks very robust," he said.
Owens said the initiative and the proposed new law involved different issues — the initiative would have asked voters to bar state services to illegal immigrants and let the Legislature define those services, while the bill supported by Democrats would use a federal list of services that could be barred, ranging from Supplemental Security Income to adoption assistance.
Fitz-Gerald said she hoped other states would follow Colorado's lead with similar laws so the federal government would "get the message that this issue can be tackled even in this hot political atmosphere."