Colorado Finds Anti-Immigration Law Costly

Seven months ago, Colorado passed one of the toughest set of anti-immigration laws in the country. Now, heads of state agencies report that illegal immigrants really didn't use state services — and the new laws cost more to implement than they save.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Colorado likes to brag that it has the toughest immigration laws in the country. Last summer it passed a law that denies most state services to undocumented immigrants. Then governor, Bill Owens, predicted the law would mean fifty thousand fewer people on welfare. Well that did not happen. In fact, it's costing the state money and it's had some other unintended consequences. From Denver, NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: The law created tougher guidelines for those applying to receive all but emergency services. Even with fake documents it would be difficult for someone in the country illegally to get past these requirements.

State Representative ANDREW ROMANOFF (Democrat; Colorado Speaker of the House): The trouble is it's also become a little tougher to get public benefits in Colorado even if you are here lawfully.

BRADY: State house speaker Andrew Romanoff, along with everyone else, has read the accounts in local papers. There's the lawmaker's daughter who had trouble getting a driver's license because her only ID was a U.S. passport and that's not sufficient to prove citizenship under the Colorado law. Then there was the elderly woman who was told she'd have to prove her citizenship to receive a hundred dollar rebate for installing low flow toilets. Some consequences are less concrete. Immigrant advocates say the law has poisoned an already hostile political climate. Raquel Sanchez is a co-founder of Sueno Americano or American Dream.

Ms. RAQUEL SANCHEZ (Co-founder of Sueno Americano) (through interpreter): Not too long ago there was a case of a person in our group who went to a large store that has locations all over the country, just to exchange a piece of clothing - they asked for ID and would only accept ID from the United States.

BRADY: A few weeks back Colorado lawmakers asked agencies to tally up the costs and savings of the new law. In all, the state has spent over two million dollars to implement it. And the savings from kicking migrants here illegally off the welfare rolls? Nada. Over at the state capitol building, senator Dave Schultheis says the law wasn't about saving money.

State Senator DAVE SCHULTHEIS (Republican, Colorado): Maybe there's not thirty thousand illegal aliens that are utilizing this system. That's not the issue. The issue is if there are ten, that's too many; and if there are five, that's too many. No one that is here in this country illegally should be using hard-earned taxpayer dollars. It's not right.

BRADY: Schultheis wouldn't be surprised if those numbers stayed low. He agrees with the dominant theory among immigration researchers that people don't risk their lives crossing the border to tap into our welfare system. They come here to work. Researchers say migration within the U.S. backs up this contention too. Instead of moving to states with relatively generous welfare programs like California, immigrants are choosing states in the Rockies, the Midwest, and the Southeast where there are plenty of jobs. And for the few who do want benefits, a 1996 welfare reform law made that illegal. Michael Fix is with the Migration Policy Institute.

Mr. MICHAEL FIX (Migration Policy Institute): In many ways these bars that people are putting on benefits for the undocumented is the equivalent of putting a second lock on, on the front door. I mean, the door was already locked, the benefits were already barred, and so it's not surprising that you get results like you see in Colorado where the savings are comparatively small.

BRADY: Advocates for immigrants have asked Colorado's Democratic leaders in the legislature to change or repeal the law but that appears unlikely. Especially considering immigration is still a hot political issue in this state.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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