STATE-ASSEMBLY-01132021-KS-391

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 13: Rep. Iman Jodeh on the floor of the House during the first legislative day of the 73rd General Assembly at the Colorado State Capitol on January 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

A House panel on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill seeking to create a state government agency to help acclimatize immigrants, refugees and their children into Colorado.

The Office of New Americans, which would be authorized under House Bill 21-1150 from Aurora Democratic Rep. Iman Jodeh, would not provide direct services. Instead, Jodeh said she envisioned the office serving a multifaceted role, including:

  • serving as a central state office for immigrant and refugee programs, policies and initiatives;
  • providing technical support and guidance to relevant state agencies; and
  • informing and making recommendations to the governor, state lawmakers and state agencies.

Jodeh said the office would be modeled on family resource centers, providing “a unified and single point of entry where vulnerable families, individuals and children can obtain information, have their needs assessed and receive referrals to family services.”

In opening testimony on the bill, Jodeh said the initiative was personal for her, given she is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and refugees and often found herself “navigating these bureaucratic spaces” on behalf of her parents.

“That's OK because I knew that their early sacrifices were made for me and my siblings so that we can realize our own American dream, but it's a lot of responsibility on children,” she said. “That stress could have been alleviated if an office of New Americans had existed.”

That testimony mirrored the experience of several others who testified in support of the bill including Mathew Mengesha, a policy professional at the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. Testifying before the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Mengesha told the story of his mother, who fled war in her native Eritrea and immigrated to the United States as a refugee.

“I witnessed her struggle with different systems as she did her best to manage our daily lives as a single mother,” he said. “Tasks that are already complex for native-born Americans like paying taxes, finding healthcare and enrolling your child in preschool are unnecessarily difficult for new Americans with no other option for guidance.

“I was my mother's de facto cultural navigator, interpreter, translator, medical advocate, union rep, application filer, and all-around guide to the multiplicities of cultural phenomena and bureaucratic systems we encountered.”

But while the panel ultimately voted to advance the bill, it did so along party lines as Republicans highlighted what they saw as a number of flaws.

Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, took aim at the bill’s fiscal note, which would receive its funding from gifts, grants and donations.

“Typically when we see a bill that starts with gifts, grants and donations, that's the first year,” Neville said. “But then the next year it showed to be so wildly successful and great, but we no longer have gifts, grants and donations, so we need to have it funded.”

Touching on a point several of his GOP colleagues also picked up on, Neville said he saw the bill as an effort to expand the state government bureaucracy.

“The fact of the matter is, this bill doesn't actually provide any services, it’s more of a liaison to those complex agencies where we have thousands of pages in statute right now, hundreds of thousands of pages in regulations and I think that's complex for anyone,” he said. “I think the problem we're facing here is government's gotten too big and too complex and should be streamlined, but I think this bill goes in the opposite direction.”

Still, the panel’s seven Democrats voted to back the measure. Several spoke in support of the bill at the closing of the hearing including Rep. Judy Amabile, who shared the story of her daughter-in-law who immigrated from Chile last weekend.

Despite speaking “great English,” holding an advanced degree and having a job, the Boulder Democrat said her daughter-in-law was still struggling with tasks such as setting up a bank account, getting vaccinated, buying a car and applying for a driver’s license.

“It is actually pretty complicated,” Amabile said. “Even though her English is good, it isn't perfect so it's hard for her to figure out what they're asking on these more technical sites so I really support the bill and thank you for bringing it.”

The bill next heads to the House Finance Committee.

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