In November, a Colorado Springs woman positioned herself at her computer, pulled up the state Division of Motor Vehicles site and waited. The first appointments for driver’s licenses for people who cannot prove they are here legally — and she is among them — would open up at 8 a.m. More slots would be released during the day. The appointments are booked, often months out, and experience had taught her they would be snatched up in minutes.
“It’s like hunting,” she says. “You must be in front of your computer three or four minutes before 8 a.m., 12, 4 p.m. or 8 p.m, and type as fast as you can.”
If you’re lucky, says the woman, who asked not to be named given her legal status, you get the appointment. If not, a box pops up saying your chosen time has already been taken.
Unauthorized immigrants who are Colorado residents have been able to obtain state driver’s licenses since late 2014 and, as of November, more than 59,000 had. The program, created under the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act, was a response to complaints from farmers, ranchers, immigrants and others who argued the lack of legal driving documentation for immigrant workers was dangerous and a drag on the economy.
From the get-go, the program has been backlogged. Only three of the state’s 36 motor vehicle offices process first-time applications for these driver’s licenses. (A fourth, in Aurora, processes renewals.)
The same three offices — in Denver, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs — also process first-time applications for learner’s permits and state IDs for unauthorized immigrants. Every weekday, 130 total appointments open. Every weekday, they are snapped up. As of Thursday, each office was booked three months out.
So many people compete for a slot that Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced in 2016 she was investigating the buying and selling of appointments. The upshot of her investigation is unclear; the department is now transitioning to a new attorney general. But, according the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, it’s still happening.
“People will buy appointments and sell them for $500 to undocumented people,” says Kyle Huelsman, CIRC’s political director. “We have addressed this through legislation, making it illegal, but it’s difficult to track. The black market continues to exist.”
The backlog could grow worse. In May, the program is projected to hit an application cap that will reduce the number of offices processing first-time applications from three to one. All applicants would have to go to Denver.
This lack of access is not what Republican state Sens. Don Coram and Larry Crowder had in mind when they threw their support behind the act. Both tell The Colorado Independent they plan to sponsor a bill this legislative session that instead would allow more DMV offices to process these licenses, permits and state IDs.
“A guy from Cortez shouldn’t have to go to Denver to get a driver’s license,” says Coram, who represents southwestern Colorado. “That’s more than 600 miles and two days (travel) … There was a guy a couple years ago, who drove from Yuma to Grand Junction because he couldn’t get an appointment in Denver and he got there and they said, ‘Sorry, your appointment was canceled. ’ He didn’t know who had canceled it.”
Coram says he’d like to have offices throughout the state offering the services, but budgets are tight. During the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which ends on June 30, $1.5 million has been set aside to run the program. So, he says, it might be only a handful more, regionally located. “Baby steps,” he says. Crowder wants to see those additional services offered in agricultural Colorado, maybe down in his district in the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado.
Last session, Coram and Crowder pushed for changes to the act that now allow online renewals, which should help alleviate some backlog, though the woman from Colorado Springs notes that not all immigrants have access to computers or are skilled at using them, and many prefer face-to-face appointments. The changes also expand access to immigrants who have Social Security numbers rather than Taxpayer Identification Numbers, which has been the main requirement for application, along with proof of Colorado residency. Many who fall into this camp were once here legally, but overstayed their visas. The Colorado Springs woman, for example, came to the United States on an agricultural visa for greenhouse work, she says, and then did not return. She says she’s lived in Colorado 11 years now, since her late teens. With the changes in the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, she could for the first time apply for a license.
“The program is almost five years old and I’ve been waiting the whole time” she says. During that time, she says, she has stayed home, raising her family’s two children, rather than seek outside work. Her husband, who, she says, got his license in 2017 or 2018, has not wanted her to take the risk of being pulled over. She says she knows there are those who think she and her husband have no business getting a driver’s license, but she says, absent full legal status, which is near impossible to obtain, this is as close as she can get.
“We are just trying to be as legal as we can,” she says. “Of course, we don’t want to hurt people, driving without licenses, and if an accident happens, you want to be the best you can. Sometimes I think people run from accidents because they are scared they don’t have driver’s license or ID. With a driver’s license you can pay what you need to pay. You can be responsible. You can work and take your kids to the park without fear.”
The clock is ticking, however, CIRC’s Huelsman says. The budget for the program contains a footnote that says once 66,000 first-time appointments resulting in a driver’s license, permit or ID have been completed, the number of offices offering such appointments will drop to one.
The thinking at the time, Huelsman says, was that any pent-up demand would be met by the time the threshold was reached. That conclusion was based upon a couple factors: the estimated size of Colorado’s unauthorized immigrant population at about 200,000 and the experiences of Utah and New Mexico, which have similar programs.
As of earlier this week, the count was at 55,546, says Sarah Werner, a communications manager for the state Department of Revenue, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles. The department estimates it will cross the 66,000 threshold in May.
Lifting that cap is a priority, says CIRC’s Huelsman. “The 66,000 wasn’t necessary — it was just part of a larger negotiation over how limited the access should have been to the program.”
This is not, he says, “a Democrat issue or a Republican issue. It’s an ag and workforce issue.”
Which is precisely how Coram and Crowder say they see it, both adding that it’s not an immigration issue, either, though, if you want to know how Coram sees that particular issue, it can be summed thusly: The immigration system is screwed up; neither party really wants to fix it, and in the meantime, avenues for expanded legal immigration remain cut off, unauthorized immigrants are bringing their families over because migration back and forth over the border has been disrupted, and nonsensical policy punishes those who want to live here legally and contribute.
Both Coram and Crowder are farmers and ranchers, and they say they have heard loud and clear from the ag community that it is imperative, particularly in the face of labor shortages, that workers can legally drive.
“If they don’t have a license and something should happen, you’re facing a lawsuit that could cost you the farm and the ranch,” Coram says. “The construction industry is faced with the same problem.”
It’s not just that workers have to drive to and from the farm or ranch, but also “feed wagons or potato trucks or whatever the case is,” Crowder says. “What we are talking about is driving a vehicle down the road. We are not trying to change immigration policy — we are just trying to make it more compatible with people being able drive down the road. … We cannot afford to put someone in a vehicle who does not have a driver’s license.”
As for the Colorado Spring woman, she says she found success at 8 p.m. on Nov. 20. Her appointment is later this month and she is hopeful she will walk out of the office with her license. “I’m biting my nails,” she says.