Immigrant driver license law creates logjam
July 23, 2014
A Colorado law that allows people who are in the country illegally to get driver's licenses starting Aug. 1 is so popular that appointments required for the licenses are booked into late October.
Immigration advocates are critical of the Department of Motor Vehicles' decision to make the licenses available at only five locations, just one of which is in western Colorado. They say it would take years to process the thousands of people eligible the way the system is set up now.
"It's an avoidable logjam," said Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The new driver's license bill is designed to do very good things, but is being implemented poorly."
Titled the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act, the law is meant to enable people to register cars in their own names, buy insurance and reduce fear of deportation growing out of traffic-related incidents. Supporters said the law promises to reduce dangerous situations such as undocumented immigrants fleeing accident scenes.
The DMV estimated 47,000 people would take advantage of the law; immigrant advocates say up to 180,000 people are eligible. Already, about 10,000 have signed up for appointments.
Of the five DMV stations that will process applications for the licenses, four are on the Front Range, stretching from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. The other station is in Grand Junction, creating the prospect of long trips from mountain communities, among other locations.
DMV spokeswoman Daria Serna said the agency, which hired four full-time employees and 13 temporary workers to implement the law, lacks money to train more people to properly examine sensitive financial and personal documents required to prove eligibility.
The agency on Monday announced a change that will help cut wait times. As written, the law covered many people here legally on visas, including, for example, ski racers and professionals such as doctors, causing the prospect of delays these people did not face before. On Monday, the DMV said those people could continue to get licenses at all 37 license stations around the state without needing an appointment.
Sophia Clark of Carbondale, Rocky Mountain Region organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, is among the many advocates who believe more should be done to accommodate demand. She called the lack of accessibility and long waits "pretty absurd."
"People are just feeling a huge disappointment," she said. "When the law passed, this huge thing happened that was going to change their quality of life, and now it's not happening."
The bill, versions of which have been passed in a handful of other states, was supported by state police chiefs' and sheriffs' associations, though Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario doesn't support the law.
"It's just another step in condoning and encouraging illegal immigration," he said. "I believe in enforcing the laws, not creating laws that encourage breaking existing laws."
The DMV, advocates and the governor's office are discussing how to ease implementation of the law — Monday's change was an outgrowth of those talks — but Colorado prohibits using state money for the benefit of someone in the country illegally.
"We are very much aware of the challenges in trying to implement the program in a way that doesn't create inconvenience or chaos for customers," said Kathy Green, spokeswoman for Gov. John Hickenlooper.
State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, sponsor of the law, told the Post Independent he has "heard loud and clear of the strong need for an additional office [to handle applications] in mountain communities. That has to happen."
He said he hopes to win a supplemental appropriation for the law when the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee meets in September, arguing for the state to "make an early investment to reduce the backlog."
The program is to be paid for by fees, with a license costing $50.50, which is $29.50 more than a regular Colorado driver's license.
The licenses (and identification cards also available under the law) will say they are "not valid for federal identification, voting or public benefit purposes."
Ulibarra said 60 percent of Colorado's immigrants are here legally, but often can be in limbo as they apply for permanent residency.
"We were trying to eliminate the uncertainty of a very broken federal immigration system" by letting people here temporarily get licenses good for three years, he said.
Serna, the DMV spokeswoman, said the backlog may not prove to be as bad as it seems. She said other states with similar laws have had significant numbers of no shows for appointments, and she implored people with appointments to cancel them if their plans have changed or they lack the needed documents.
Jennifer Smith, a Glenwood Springs immigration attorney, warned that the law creates an opportunity for scammers. "Be careful," she advised immigrants, of anyone who advertises, "we'll help you prepare the documents you need."
Smith and other immigration attorneys also expressed concern that the DMV will use the application process to turn people in to immigration authorities if workers find evidence of false documents in a person's past.
Such concerns are keeping some immigrants from seeking licenses.
Among them is Jorge, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who drives daily from Glenwood Springs to Rifle to work in a car insured by his uncle. Jorge, who wouldn't give his last name for publication, said he overstayed a six-month tourist visa about two years ago.
"I'd like to have it," he said of a driver's license, "but I don't want to have problems."