Nonprofits foreign to new anti-immigration laws |

Nonprofits foreign to new anti-immigration laws

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

A new Colorado law aimed at preventing illegal aliens from getting public assistance has some local nonprofits scratching their heads about whether they can provide help to their traditional clients, many of whom may well be in this country illegally. Representatives of three of the Roaring Fork Valley’s better known nonprofit organizations – Catholic Charities, Lift-Up and English in Action – said that while the full impact of the new laws is not yet known, they believe their services may not be affected. But they are worried nonetheless.

“There’s a lot of work being done just to get the law clarified,” said Julie Fox-Rubin, director of the Basalt-based English In Action, which offers English language instruction to anyone who wants it – many of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. And while Fox-Rubin recognizes that time and resources must be re-directed toward figuring out how the new law affects her organization, she noted, “That’s time that some might say would be better spent providing services.” House Bill 1023 was passed in the summer of 2006, and requires anyone providing public assistance to confirm that recipients are in the United States legally and eligible to receive subsidies. Local governments also are trying to understand the new legislation. They already have made changes in the way they deal with nonprofits looking for public grants. The city of Aspen and Pitkin County have rewritten their grant contracts, including requirements that any recipients be cleared as legally eligible. Eagle County also is casting a critical eye at its grants program, according to Tom Ziemann, who runs Catholic Charities, a local nonprofit organization that stands to lose a signficant portion of its budget if the state law is applied.

And there is confusion created at the state level, too. Fox-Rubin and Ziemann both said the state attorney general’s office has issued two “clarifications” about the applicability of the new laws. But, said Fox-Rubin, “there are still more questions.” One of the provisions of the laws – which mandates that any “applicant” be checked out to determine legal status – is seen as key. The word “applicant” implies an application for services, and the three nonprofits contacted for this story said they have no application process for most of their services. At English in Action, Fox-Rubin said people simply show up at the classes and improve on their English language skills. No application is required. “I think nonprofits really want to follow the law,” said Fox-Rubin. “They’re just not sure what the law is.” The same is largely true for the other two organizations.

“I don’t expect it to have any impact on us at all,” declared Lift-Up Director Mike Powell, because “Lift-Up doesn’t ask. Because we don’t ask, we don’t know how many illegal immigrants we serve.” The lack of applications is a reflection of the organization’s mission – to help people who say they need it, whether it comes in the form of holiday food baskets, warm clothes, temporary housing for the homeless or a hot meal at a soup kitchen, Powell said. “We would rather help one who didn’t need it than miss out on one who did,” he added. “There’s probably a lot of people who take advantage of us, and we accept that.” He noted that Lift-Up is a faith-based organization, started by churches in the 1980s, adding that churches do not restrict their ministries by asking whether someone is a legal citizen. “If people come in to worship, are you going to have to find out if they’re legal or not?” he asked.

Ziemann expressed similar sentiments. With four different types of social services, his organization is “very diverse in what we do.” Catholic Charities offers emergency help in a crisis, such as paying rent, utilities, prescription drugs or a bus ticket for its clients. It also offers “transitional housing” for the homeless; legal help with immigration issues; and something Ziemann admitted was a “controversial” service: “Immigrant community advocacy,” which includes help with such things as job disputes and landlord-tenant hassles. Ziemann takes the long view of the new laws, arguing that the state let itself get caught up in “a rush to create these laws that would appeal to an anti-immigrant sentiment.” And that happened because “the federal government has failed to act,” he said, referring to the confusing and conflicting federal laws governing immigration, and the fact that despite promises to clean up the mess, Washington has not passed a comprehensive immigration reform act. Ziemann said U.S. immigration laws only permit 5,000 Mexicans per year, for example, to come into this country legally, despite “this professed need for millions of workers.”

And, he said, this is the first time in U.S. history that the immigration laws have effectively closed the door to legal migration across international borders. “It’s a matter of justice,” Ziemann declared. “The law is unjust.” But aside from that, he continued, “It does not apply to Catholic Charities. We don’t have an application … there’s no means testing” to get help from the organization, except in very specific cases, such as the provision of housing with federal funds. In such cases, he said, “We’re still trying to work some things out.” As an example of the problem, Catholic Charities has an annual budget of more than $400,000, and roughly $65,000 of that is expected to come from local government grants this year. Of that amount, he said, $25,000 expected from Eagle County already is jeopardized because of the government’s concerns that Catholic Charities may not be complying with the state law. Ziemann said he is getting set to put out an appeal to the county’s Catholic community for help, because “we’ve got to make up that $25,000.”John Colson’s e-mail address is

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