Mar 14, 2023

Ellen K. Giarratana previously served as Litigation Director at CCLP, where she advocated for the equitable enforcement of legislation, representing community members in litigation in our four focus areas (food, health, income, housing) while working to improve racial equity.

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Myths & Facts: Ending Colorado’s Unconstitutional Sponsorship Law

by | Mar 14, 2023



In the mid-90s, President Bill Clinton famously promised to “end welfare as we know it,” by capping the number of years for eligibility and imposing restrictions for certain public benefits. Non-citizens were hit particularly hard as part of that misguided goal as federal legislation created specific scenarios in which immigrants qualify for federal and state benefits as well as barred non-citizens from accessing benefits for five years. The legislation – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) – also invited states to legislate around certain aspects of immigrant access to public benefits.  

Colorado responded by enacting Senate Bill 97-171, Concerning Assistance Programs for Immigrants. The bill deviated from all other states by imposing a condition on non-citizens who otherwise qualified for benefits to refrain from sponsoring individuals from other countries. Therefore, a non-citizen entitled to benefits must decide between receiving a benefit, like medical assistance or old-age pension, or sponsoring a loved one to come to the United States. Such a provision is unlawful and unconstitutional, which may be the reason other states did not enact similar legislation.

Immigration issues are in the sole domain of the federal government – a concept called “field preemption.” The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that Congress has exclusive power over immigration and Congress has used that power by enacting the Immigration and Nationality Act, which includes standards about sponsorship. E.g., 8 U.S.C. § 1183. In other words, states may not pass legislation that concerns immigration. The sponsorship provision in Colorado’s current law violates field preemption because it imposes additional criteria on individuals seeking to sponsor a family member. 

The sponsorship provision also violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it treats qualified non-citizens and citizens differently for no compelling reason. Citizens who are entitled to benefits are free to receive such benefits and sponsor whomever they would like, while non-citizens may not.

House Bill 23-1117 repeals the sponsorship provisions and requires county departments to remove any reference to the sponsorship prohibition in their materials. Although the bill passed out of the House with overwhelming support, it is worth dispelling some myths surrounding this legislation.


Myth #1: This bill deviates from federal policy and breaks federal law. 

Fact: The current language in Colorado law deviates from federal law. The state of Colorado never had the authority to pass the provisions in SB97-171. 


Myth #2: The bill incentivizes immigrants to come to Colorado. 

Fact: This bill brings Colorado in line with every other state. No other state that CCLP has found imposes a sponsorship restriction for the receipt of benefits. Until relatively recently, this policy was not even enforced other than to include some language in applications that qualified non-citizens must agree not to sponsor individuals while on benefits.  


Myth #3: This bill changes the income threshold for individuals to sponsor an immigrant. 

Fact: The state has no control over who can sponsor an immigrant. Even with this provision in place, it is the federal government that sets the income requirements for individuals seeking to sponsor an individual from another country.  


Myth #4: This bill will overburden the public benefits system. 

Fact: To the extent this bill increases the number of immigrants coming to Colorado – a questionable and unproven premise – new immigrants are not eligible for federally funded benefits for five years. Additionally, immigrants are far less likely to participate in benefits programs than their native-born counterparts and studies have found that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government services and benefits.  

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To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.


Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.


Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.


Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.