Only one Colorado law uses the phrase “illegal alien” — and it’s days are likely numbered

Colorado uses the phrase “illegal alien” in just one law, about public contracts. The phrase soon may go away entirely.

On Wednesday, the Colorado House voted along party lines, 39-24, in favor of a bill that would strip the derogatory term “illegal alien” for immigrants who came to the country illegally from language in a state statute about public contracts for services. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The terminology has been increasingly scrutinized, with immigrants, activists, lawyers, politicians and others choosing to use terms like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” immigrants. And leaders across the country are pushing to get rid of the term “illegal alien” in official documents.

The specific statute directs state agencies not to enter or renew public contracts with a contractor who “knowingly employs or contracts with an illegal alien.” The language would be changed to “a worker without authorization” in all instances where “illegal alien” is currently used.

Denver Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine, one of the bill’s sponsors, introduced the proposal last year, but it didn’t go anywhere because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lontine said the phrase came to her attention when a friend who works for the city of Denver pointed it out. In a House committee meeting last month, she told members that “illegal” is used in connection with criminal acts, but immigration status is a civil matter.

“It becomes OK to treat people we believe are illegal with violence because, after all, they’re criminals,” she said.

The bill makes a small change to Colorado law, but Lontine said “words do matter.”

Watkins GOP Rep. Rod Bockenfeld opposed the bill, and recommended an amendment Tuesday to change the language from “workers without authorization” to “undocumented” immigrants, saying it would make the language consistent.

“We can’t keep changing the way we identify this class of individuals to what feels good for the day,” he said. “This isn’t fair to the businesses that have to try to replace the laws that we pass here.”

Lontine said that’s what her bill would have done last year, but she changed it after speaking with other Democrats as well as city and county of Denver officials, who told her “workers without authorization” was the preferred term. The bill also specifically refers to immigrant workers in this context and also adds a definition for the phrase.

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