Li­cens­ing plan is crash­ing

Driver’s li­censes for il­le­gal res­i­dents more dif­fi­cult to re­new.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jesse Paul

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.

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