Democrats aim to fix the immigrant driver’s license debacle

Marvin, an undocumented Latino immigrant in Denver, has been calling to schedule an appointment to get his driver’s license for more than a year. Four hundred phone calls later, nobody’s picked up, let alone set up an appointment for him.

His story is similar to those of the two dozen people who attended a news conference at the state Capitol Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to fix the system that grants undocumented residents driver’s licenses.

In 2013, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 251 to allow 15 Department of Motor Vehicle offices across the state to give undocumented residents driver’s licenses. The program was intended to be self-supporting, paid for by the fees charged to those residents. The program’s first phase allowed five offices to handle the online application process.

But last year, Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee blocked an effort to use $166,000 in fees collected from those who had already purchased their licenses. That money would have opened up an additional two offices to handle driver’s license appointments. The JBC action effectively limited the program to just three DMV offices, in Denver, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs.

Republicans have unanimously opposed the program, both on the JBC and when the bill passed through the General Assembly in 2013. They claim that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented residents is a form of amnesty. In an interview with NPR last year, Republican Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City said Republicans don’t condone the activity or the policy, so “how can we condone the funding of it?”

By capping the number of DMV offices that can process appointments, GOP lawmakers created a logjam. Now, for immigrants lucky enough to get an appointment, the wait can be as long as two years. The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute estimates more than 160,000 are waiting to get in line for an appointment. The three offices can process just 93 applications per day, total.

The logjam has led to abuses, such as scammers selling appointments to the highest bidder. Last month, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced an investigation into the practice, noting that some appointments cost as much as $1,000 on the blackmarket.

The appointments are free, Coffman pointed out.

For law enforcement, making sure all motorists have driver’s licenses, regardless of immigration status, is a public safety issue.

Sheriff Bob Pelle of Boulder County told reporters that law enforcement officials prefer in traffic stops that the driver has a state-issued driver’s license. That state-issued ID gives them the confidence that the driver is the person on the license, he explained.

Rep. Jonathan Singer of Longmont is the sponsor of a bill that would allow the Department of Revenue to spend the money it collects from undocumented residents to restore the program back to the 15 offices originally allowed for under the 2013 bill. Celesté Martinez of Together Colorado said that 32 DMV offices out of the 52 in the state have the technical chops to handle the online appointment process.

State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Westminster Democrat who will carry Singer’s bill in the Senate, also has a bill that would address the program’s abuses. Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver will carry that bill in the House.

Pushing either measure through the Republican-dominated Senate would likely be a challenge. Ulibarri’s related bill in the 2015 session was sent to the Senate’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where it died.

If Republicans kill this year’s bill, that might not fix the problem, but it would play well for Democrats who need Latino votes to win back control of the Senate in November.

Colorado voters should know which party will govern responsibly and protect public safety, and “which party is playing games for their own political advantage,” Ulibarri told The Colorado Independent.

“What we’ve heard from sheriffs, police chiefs, community residents and the insurance industry is that this is better for public safety,” and that one party, Democrats, have been pushing for this program, Ulibarri said.

“Hopefully, voters will see this,” he added. “There’s a responsibility that we have as legislators to do our jobs, not to play politics, and I’m hoping Senate Republicans don’t continue to play politics with this program.”


Photo credit: Bradley Gordon, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.