Few people in the Colorado Legislature know the immigration system more intimately than Naquetta Ricks.
During a March 30 Colorado House Judiciary Committee, the Democratic representative from Aurora shared her personal experience of fleeing Liberia, her native country, during a military coup in the early 1980s, when she was a teenager.
"A lot of people come here not because they want to be here. They come here because of war, famine and hardship experienced in their native lands," Ricks said.
Once they arrived here, Ricks, her mother and her sister initially went through immigration court proceedings without an attorney and were denied asylum; they eventually were able to secure permanent residency and citizenship.
Ricks was testifying in favor of a bill she's co-sponsoring that seeks to set up a statewide legal defense fund for indigent immigrants going through deportation proceedings.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal seven to four along party lines, moving it on to another House committee.
"[This bill] is about due process and fairness," Representative Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said before voting in favor of the measure.
But the Republicans who voted against the bill argued that funding immigration legal defense shouldn't be the role of state government.
If approved by the full House and Senate and signed by Governor Jared Polis, the bill would allot $100,000 annually to an immigrant legal defense fund, no more than $15,000 of which could be used for administrative costs. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which would oversee the program and dole out money to organizations working in immigration legal advocacy, would also be able to accept donations from public or private sources and apply for grants.
Under the bill, 70 percent of the money would have to be used for indigent clients who are detained by the federal government, while 30 percent would go to indigent clients who are not detained for deportation proceedings. Clients could range from immigrants without documentation who have no criminal history to both undocumented immigrants and legal residents with criminal histories.
Just the introduction of the bill this year was a significant victory for its sponsors. Before the session, some prominent immigrant-rights advocates in the legislature had said they didn't believe there would be enough political will for the proposal to succeed, given the budget cuts related to the pandemic. However, the Democrats pushing the bill now want to establish the fund as soon as possible.
Although the fund would start out small, if the program grew it could have a massive impact in Colorado. Unlike defendants in criminal proceedings, immigrants going through deportation proceedings do not have a legal right to counsel. During fiscal year 2019, of the 1,255 immigrants who went through deportation proceedings at the Aurora ICE detention facility, 811 of them — about 65 percent — did so without legal representation. Immigrants who go through immigration court with a lawyer are much more likely to see a favorable outcome.
The fund would be a "modest investment on the front end" that could pay large dividends for immigrants and their families in Colorado, according to Representative Kerry Tipper, a Democrat from Lakewood who's co-sponsoring the bill.
The City of Denver has an immigrant legal defense fund that is earmarked for $500,000 in city funding in 2021. Clients helped through that fund have lived in the U.S. for sixteen years on average, according to Sarah Plastino, a senior staff attorney at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which contracts with Denver for the program.
Although Aurora City Council also considered establishing an immigrant legal defense fund, members rejected that proposal earlier this year.
A recent report from the Colorado Fiscal Institute, a liberal think tank, indicated that the establishment of a statewide immigrant legal defense fund would have a positive impact on local and state economies. In order to represent all indigent immigrants in Colorado going through deportation proceedings, the program would run $15.2 million annually based on numbers from fiscal year 2019, according to the report. But it estimated that the fund would also result in savings of $18.6 million annually, in part from avoiding lost wages and preventing employee turnover.