Our View: Release money for immigrant licenses | PostIndependent.com

Our View: Release money for immigrant licenses

A sample driver's license.

Is the Colorado Legislature pragmatic enough to put public safety above impractical ideology?

Though the lawmakers involved wouldn’t frame it that way, that’s the question raised by a few Colorado Republicans’ refusal to authorize spending of fees from driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Our state representative, Bob Rankin of Carbondale, is among the lawmakers who have blocked the spending. The Post Independent calls on him to reverse his position to support public safety and to simply be realistic about immigrant issues in the state and in his district. Because he is a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, his vote alone can break this partisan logjam.

In 2013, the Legislature, fully controlled by Democrats, passed a law that set up a way for people who are in the country illegally to get driver’s licenses, learner’s permits or state ID cards if they met certain conditions, including proof of Colorado residency and a U.S. taxpayer identification number.

It’s important to understand that the licenses bear clear wording on their face that they are “not valid for federal identification, voting or public benefit purposes.” They cannot, for example, be used to board a commercial flight. They allow undocumented immigrants to be licensed drivers, register vehicles in their own names and buy insurance.

Colorado police and sheriff’s associations were for the bill, believing it would reduce the number of hit-and-run incidents and even chases involving unlicensed drivers. We think law enforcers are the experts on this.

Among the opponents of the law are Republicans with new power in the Legislature who seem to believe that because a person is in the country illegally, that original violation forecloses any recognition under the law.

This in effect asks us as a state and nation to put on blinders and pretend that an estimated 11 million people — roughly 200,000 of them in Colorado — just aren’t here.

They aren’t making beds, cooking food or doing construction up and down these river valleys; their children aren’t in the schools; they aren’t neighbors or smiling faces at community festivals; they aren’t taxpayers and shoppers fueling the economy — and for goodness’ sakes, they aren’t driving within a few feet of us at high speed on Interstate 70 or Highway 82.

This is hooey, as big a fantasy as the idea that the United States could somehow deport everyone who is here illegally.

They are driving, many of them long distances across Garfield County to get to work. Having a license actually allows them to take personal responsibility and be accountable for their conduct on the roads.

We need to live in reality, and the law was a small step toward doing that, just as is the IRS’s issuance of taxpayer identification numbers.

The licenses cost $50.50, which is $29.50 more than a regular Colorado driver’s license in order to pay for the program, and that is the money that the Department of Revenue has sought authority to spend.

When launched last summer, the program offered licenses at five locations, four on the Front Range and one in Grand Junction. The program has been popular, issuing nearly 8,000 of the special driver licenses through early February. They aren’t being handed out without care — more than 5,000 people who have applied have not met qualifications. The Division of Motor Vehicles needed workers to examine documents and ensure eligibility, and it wanted to make the licenses available at more stations, including Glenwood Springs. When spending was blocked, the DMV couldn’t make temporary workers permanent and had to trim back to just one Denver office and reschedule 8,000 appointments.

The people subjecting themselves to this process are outing themselves and registering with the state. It is extremely unlikely the program attracts trouble-makers.

Rep. Rankin says his opposition is based in part on the fact that the DMV has bigger problems. He’s right, and the state should address them. It should not punish people who want to come forward to drive legally and it should not make it difficult for them to buy insurance if they want. Those steps benefit all of us and, yes, afford a bit of decency to people who are here living and working, raising families and contributing in our nation of immigrants.

Rankin also raises the specter of the state’s taxpayer rights law — TABOR — arguing that the fees could trigger its harsh provisions if revenue grows too much. The fees, though, have been factored into administration budget calculations and are offset by other recommendations.

While the Senate, with a one-seat Republican majority, blocked the spending, House Republicans for the most part backed away. That chamber, with a three-vote Democratic majority, voted 54-11 to include the license fees in a larger supplemental appropriations bill.

It is now back before the Joint Budget Committee of three Democrats and three Republicans, including Rankin.

Rankin is a reasonable man. Thousands of families in his district can see their lives improved by this license program, and all of us are slightly less likely to be struck by an uninsured driver or endangered by a fleeing motorist.

Besides, this is state law. If Republicans don’t have the votes to change it, they should let the DMV make the licenses reasonably available rather than choking its availability in a way that is particularly unfair to Western Slope residents.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.