AG probes sale of immigrant license appointments | PostIndependent.com

AG probes sale of immigrant license appointments

Ryan Summerlin
rsummerlin@postindependent.com

The attendees of a rally April 7 at the Garfield County Courthouse supported HB1274

Immigrants and advocates say two Garfield County companies have been charging money to arrange appointments under Colorado's program to provide driver licenses for eligible undocumented residents – a practice under investigation by the state attorney general's office.

The practice, which one business owner says is a service he's providing at no profit simply because the appointments are so difficult to obtain, highlights problems with the program that some immigrants say leaves them no practical choice but to pay. The state does not charge for appointments.

In 2013, the Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who can prove they have paid U.S. taxes and meet other conditions to get driver's licenses.

The program, supported by law enforcement associations, was intended to make the roads safer by giving undocumented immigrants the opportunity drive legally, register vehicles in their own name and buy insurance. Supporters say it recognizes the reality of a state with many undocumented residents who must drive for work and errands like most everyone else.

The program began in August 2014 with five Division of Motor Vehicle offices offering the licenses, which cost $50.50, $29.50 more than a regular Colorado driver's license in order to pay for the program. The licenses cannot be used to obtain public benefits or to board a commercial flight. They proved wildly popular, with demand for appointments outpacing the bandwidth of the five offices to process applications.

Last year, the Department of Revenue sought legislative approval to offer the licenses at more DMV stations using anticipated revenue from the cost of the licenses. The Colorado House approved the plan, but Senate Republicans balked. In a compromise, the Joint Budget Committee authorized enough spending to offer the licenses at three DMV offices: one each in Grand Junction, Denver and Colorado Springs.

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Sophia Clark of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said that continued high demand coupled with very limited availability has created a bottleneck of immigrants trying to get an appointment. People are waiting months just to get an appointment, said Clark.

While individuals have had a hard time navigating the program legitimately, some individuals and companies have been offering to arrange appointments and charge a fee to the eligible immigrant.

The attorney general and DMV began investigating the practice this winter, and the Legislature has sent a bill to Gov. John Hickenlooper that makes it a misdemeanor to sell a public good. That currently is a civil violation that can lead to a fine.

Supporters of a separate bill to allow more DMV offices to offer the licenses rallied last month outside the Garfield County Courthouse. Immigrants at the rally said they know they shouldn't to have to pay for the DMV appointments, but it's practically impossible to get an appointment otherwise.

Some immigrants said they were paying companies $150 to get an appointment at one of the three DMV offices. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in January her office has heard of people paying up to $1,000 for an appointment.

Several immigrants said Impuestos Seguros, a Glenwood Springs tax company, is selling DMV appointments.

Abel Esteban, owner of Impuestos Seguros, said his company offers to arrange appointments as a service bundled with other tax preparation services.

Impuestos Seguros doesn't make the appointments itself, said Esteban. He said the company purchases appointment slots from Virtual Office Alliance, a company in Washington state.

Esteban said he believes Virtual Office Alliance's practice is legal. It does not reserve appointments and hold them until a customer pays for them. Rather, Virtual Office is being paid to schedule the appointment for a specific customer, which is not as easy at it may sound.

New appointments become available four times each day: at 8 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

But the overwhelming demand for the limited number of appointments creates a mad rush of thousands of people trying to secure spots all at the same time, said Esteban.

As soon as they become available, they are snatched up within seconds, he said. "If you misspell something and have to go back, you're done."

So the immigrant is not paying for the appointment per se, he said, but to have a company manning computers, poised with fast fingers to enter their information the second new appointments become available.

It's unclear if this nuance would be convincing to the attorney general's office, which declined to discuss specifics of its investigation. Esteban said he has not been contacted by AG investigators, but he might stop the practice immediately if it's going to cause him legal trouble.

He added that his company doesn't make any money off the deal. It charges customers $115 for the appointment and other services – that same amount that he said Impuestos Seguros pays the Washington business for an appointment. The value in this transaction, said Esteban, is in attracting new customers. In this last tax season alone he saw business go up by 14 percent.

The DMV has taken steps meant "to prevent individuals from obtaining appointments and transferring them to other individuals," Sarah Werner, DMV communications specialist, told the Post Independent by email. "One procedure change was to release appointments throughout the day instead of at midnight.

"Another change is the addition of a security 'captcha' feature to the appointment scheduler to limit individuals from making multiple appointments," she wrote.

The DMV encourages people who know about an individual or company selling DMV appointments to report them to the attorney general's office.

Esteban said Impuestos Seguros began the practice only after customers started requesting help with setting up the appointments.

Many of his clients do not have computers and are not technologically savvy – not to mention that the DMV's appointment page is in English and already difficult to navigate, he said.

Another company with branches spread across Garfield County and beyond was identified by Jennifer Smith, a Glenwood Springs immigration attorney, as charging for license appointments. Smith said one of her clients purchased a DMV appointment from this company, and she has filed a complaint with the attorney general and DMV in September 2014.

The owner of that business, though, denied that his business has sold any appointments. The Post Independent is not naming the company because of a lack of documentation verifying the practice.

Esteban said the state could remove the incentive for immigrants to pay for the appointments. "Open more offices, and this problem goes away," he said.

The Colorado House has approved a bill to do that, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which blocked the expansion last year.

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