A small win for immigrant driver’s license program

A broken system that has brought grief and frustration to countless undocumented immigrants seeking Colorado driver’s licenses made it one step closer to overhaul Monday evening.

After spirited testimony from individuals who have struggled for years trying to get driver’s licenses, the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee passed two separate bills designed to make Colorado’s undocumented immigrant driver’s license program finally work as intended.

The first bill, HB 1335, would make it a misdemeanor to sell public services that are meant to be available for free, like DMV appointments. A severe shortage of these appointments — all three DMV locations in the state that serve undocumented immigrants are currently fully booked through the end of June — led to the creation of a black market. Scammers started making bulk reservations and then selling them for hundreds of dollars to folks who feel they have no other choice.

The second bill, HB 1274, would dedicate 20 more staff members and triple the number of facilities that offer licenses to residents who can’t demonstrate lawful presence in the United States. 

Together, the two measures hope to finally fix a policy that has struggled since its inception. 

In 2013, Colorado became one of the first states to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. It was a victory for immigrant activists, but the logistics were tricky: Only five of the state’s 56 DMVs offered the service. Would-be license holders faced big crowds and long waits.

Two years later, a Republican budget fight cut the number of facilities from five to one.

The license program was designed to be self-funded, without taxpayer money, meaning immigrants pay much higher premiums for their licenses than the rest of the population, to offset administrative costs.

But in 2015, Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee refused to allow the $166,000 collected from fees to go back into the program, shuttering operations at four DMVs. A deal was eventually struck to allow just three locations: one in Denver, one in Colorado Springs and one in Grand Junction. Appointments for all three, released 90 days in advance, are constantly — and predictably — grabbed up within seconds.

Those who testified on behalf of both bills shared stories of fear, desperation and frustration.

Sylvia Leticia Rivera of Greeley recalled paying hundreds of dollars to a private broker for a DMV appointment, only to realize upon arrival that an unpaid ticket, which she thought was taken care of, rendered the appointment useless. Rivera now drives without a license because she has to take her grandchildren to school and to doctor’s appointments.

On March 8, she was pulled over while taking her children to school and given a court date. The judge told her she must show a valid driver’s license by May.

“I feel so much desperation about my problems right now,” she said through a translator. “If only I could get a driver’s license.” She then admitted that she testified, “so that people can stop taking advantage of people like me.”

During his introduction of the program expansion bill, sponsor Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, admitted immigration isn’t typically his go-to cause.

“I’m not the face of immigration, at the Capitol or anywhere,” he said. But his support of the bill was rooted in practicality.

“When people get licenses, they get insured,” Singer said. More insured drivers means a bigger insurance pool, which yields financial benefits for everyone.

Plus, driver’s tests mean better drivers. “When I’m on the road, I want to know or have a reasonable assumption that everyone else…knows the rules of the road,” Singer said.

Singer then cited statistics from other states that have implemented similar programs. New Mexico and Utah, for example, saw dramatic reductions in highway fatalities after driver’s licenses became the norm for undocumented immigrants.

HB 1274 passed committee along party lines, 5-4. The bill to criminalize the sale of public appointments passed more easily, 7-2.

The program expansion bill faces an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled Senate. But Singer sounded optimistic that the health, safety and economic benefits the bill will bring make it not such a long shot after all.

“This is the art of the possible,” he said.

Photo credit: Gabriel White, flickr creative commons

Correction March 30, 2016: The story originally named Gunbarrel as one of the three DMV locations to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The office is in Grand Junction.