Licensing plan is crashing
Driver’s licenses for illegal residents more difficult to renew.
Colorado’s driver’s license program for people living in the U.S. illegally has been hobbled since its start three years ago, and efforts to fix and better fund the initiative have been caught in partisan gridlock.
An application backlog, possibly years long for some, is estimated to run in the tens of thousands. Just three Division of Motor Vehicles branches across Colorado offer the licenses, and in a year only one in the Denver area might be left to serve the entire state.
Now things are scheduled to get even worse: During the next few months, the program — which one national observer called a “nightmare scenario” — will send about 11,000 people who need to renew their licenses back into the jampacked line.
That prospect, advocates say, is making immigrants who are already anxious about their status during the Trump administration unsure about their ability to legally drive, which could leave them facing deportation if pulled over while behind the wheel.
“There’s just a fear of, ‘What’s going to happen if my license expires and I haven’t been able to get an appointment?’ ” said Celesté Martinez, a bilingual organizer with Together Colorado, which advocates on behalf of immigrants.
The program began in August 2014 after being pitched as a way to make Colorado’s roads safer by ensuring drivers living in the U.S. illegally have
insurance and know the rules of the road. Since then, license seekers have complained about what they call a near-impossible process of getting an appointment to apply, a situation that invited schemes in which appointment times were being sold. Conflicting documentation requirements have cut some applicants out of the process altogether.
“If you think going to the DMV as a citizen is a hassle, it’s a walk through the park when compared to somebody who is trying to get a license through (the immigrant driver’s license program),” said Denver immigration attorney Hans Meyer. “What we have is good public policy that’s sacrificed at the altar of political dysfunction.”
The DMV makes appointments available 90 days out and has money to handle only 93 appointments each day at just three offices — in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Lakewood — for both first-time applicants and renewals.
From the applicant’s perspective, that means a mad dash to the DMV’s website or phone hotline. Appointments are released four times each business day and are claimed almost immediately, immigrant advocates say.
The DMV, under the oversight of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, says it’s able to operate only with the funds state lawmakers make available; the program is paid for by charging applicants about $50 more for a driver’s license than U.S. citizens. And those dollars have been sparing because of the political tension.
More than 120,000 people in Colorado are eligible for the licenses, according to an estimate from the American Friends Service Committee, a national social justice organization. From its inception in August 2014 to the end of May, the program issued 32,325 first-time licenses and just 51 renewals.
In the program’s first five months, about 11,000 licenses were issued, and since they expire after three years — instead of five years for U.S. citizens — those people will have to renew before February. That represents about a half-year of appointment capacity.
Tanya Broder, senior attorney at the Los Angelesbased National Immigration Law Center, said a dozen states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have some form of a driver’s license program for people living in the country illegally. But Colorado’s issues haven’t been felt in other states.
“It seems to be the current nightmare scenario,” she said. “In other states, there were startup problems, but they were resolved after a few months. California has almost 900,000 with the new licenses, and it was able to do so smoothly.”
Democrats passed legislation that created the program in 2013 when they controlled the state House and Senate and the governor’s mansion. Republicans, now in charge of the state Senate, say the initiative flies in the face of federal immigration law and possibly even gives incentive to people living in the U.S. illegally to come to Colorado.
“I’m not going to bend over backward to make it work when I don’t believe it should be there in the first place,” said state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who sits on a powerful committee that has been at the center of battles over the initiative. “It’s a program that I think sends the wrong message to people who come here illegally.”
In 2015, other Republicans on that panel, the Joint Budget Committee, voted to withhold funding for the initiative before a compromise was reached to keep it afloat. And Democrats’ efforts to fix the problems have been blocked in the GOP-controlled state Senate.
“The whole role of the budget is to fund current law,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Adams County, who sponsored failed legislation to fix the initiative this year. “The undocumented driver’s license program is current law, and we are not funding it to the level that we should in order for it to be a successful program. What you’ve seen, unfortunately, is some politics being played through the budget process to try to not fund a program that Republicans don’t like.”
There’s also a provision in the original legislation that requires the DMV to reduce the number of offices that offer the program to just one after 66,000 first-time appointments are serviced. That’s projected to happen in May 2018.
Democrats have already vowed to try again to fix the program during the 2018 legislative session, and lawmakers agreed in the past session to provide additional funding for the initiative in the coming fiscal year.
“These people are here. They are providing our food. And most of them are pretty darn good people,” said state Sen. Don Coram, a moderate Republican from Montrose who sponsored the legislation with Moreno. He says the program is imperative in agriculture, a sector important to his district that employs people living in the U.S. illegally and needs those workers to be able to drive. “Why are we creating problems for them, their employers?”
Rosalva Mireles, an immigrant, poses for a photograph in 2014 after she was processed in Denver for her driver’s license.