Before Colorado legislators repealed the state's "Show me your papers" law in 2013, which had allowed peace officers to detain undocumented immigrants, thousands were detained and deported, many after being stopped for minor traffic infractions like driving without a license. The law was essentially replaced that same year with SB 251, which established a driver's license program for undocumented Coloradans under the Department of Motor Vehicles.
A bipartisan group of legislators hopes to expand access to the driver's license program through a bill it will present early in the legislative session, championed by an unlikely pair: Representative Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont, and Senator Larry Crowder, a Republican from Alamosa.
"In Colorado, we can't solve federal immigration reform, but as a Colorado lawmaker, I can deal with some of the symptoms of the problem," Singer says. "One of those is making sure everyone knows the rules of the road and everyone gets insured regardless of where you come from."
Two fixes are being proposed. The first would allow applicants with Social Security numbers, including DACA recipients, or "dreamers." Currently only an ITIN — also known as an individual tax identification number — can be used for application purposes; individuals are not allowed to have both a Social Security number and an ITIN.
"It was an oversight, and we should have caught it in 2013, and we didn't,” Singer says. "We weren’t thinking about Social Security numbers, because DACA wasn’t as widespread as it is today. So there wasn’t a huge prevalence of Social Security numbers."
Even with the program's current restrictions, nearly 42,000 driver's licenses were issued since its start in August 2014 through this past November, according to the DMV. The program is touted for its road-safety benefits, because all drivers are required to have car insurance.
"In order to get the license, you have to show proof of insurance, so to me, it’s a plus for anyone who's driving on the highways," Crowder says.
The second proposal under the bill is a small tweak to a major problem dogging the program. Currently, undocumented immigrants must apply and renew their license in person at a DMV location that is authorized under the program. Even though the DMV operates 56 licensing centers, the number of locations authorized under the program has fluctuated from a high of five offices down to a single office for the entire state. To date, three DMV locations accept both renewals and first-time applications, and a fourth office was established last month for renewals only.
Singer and Crowder are pushing for online or mail-in renewals for existing driver's license holders, an option available to every other Coloradan. This fix not only takes the pressure off first-time applicants by opening up more appointments, but it also eases the transportation concerns of undocumented immigrants who may be unable to trek across the state.
For Crowder, who represents much of rural southern Colorado and is a rancher, the bill is a boon to the state's agricultural producers, some of whom rely on an undocumented workforce. A driver's license means more employees can legally drive to work and handle road equipment.
"Just to get that appointment to start with is a burden," Crowder says. "I'm approaching this as a workforce issue for agriculture. We can't fill the positions. What these [agricultural] producers need is someone who can get to work and, once they get there, drive the equipment. This is about keeping your produce and your [agricultural] products affordable. The alternative is if people are opposed to this, they might want to apply for an [agricultural] job."
The only DMV offices that can issue licenses to undocumented immigrants are located in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Lakewood, with a renewal office in Aurora. All appointments are scheduled ninety days out. Because slots are so competitive, applicants may wind up driving across the state instead of to the closest office due to limited availability. For those living around Durango, the eastern plains or as far north as Fort Collins, the trek can be prohibitive.
Altogether, undocumented immigrants are vying for 207 daily slots for first-time and renewal appointments, which tend to be booked within minutes of becoming available online for scheduling. Booking by phone could take hours, if those slots are even available. In October, 62 more daily appointments were added to the Lakewood office, and the addition of the Aurora office added another 52 daily appointments, albeit for renewals only.
No taxpayer dollars are used to run the program. All expenses are covered by the undocumented immigrants themselves, who pay a higher premium for their driver's licenses. Most Coloradans pay a $27 fee for a driver's license, but undocumented immigrants pay $79.58 for the same privilege. And undocumented immigrants must renew every three years instead of the standard five years for all other Coloradans.
The DMV declined to provide its backlog of requests, but confirmed that all first-time appointments were completely booked ninety days out; some reports peg the backlog at more than three years. Activists have long criticized the long wait times, especially considering that the program is self-funded by undocumented immigrants.
“That's not upholding the intent of the law to provide access,” says Celesté Martinez, a bilingual organizer with Together Colorado, a nonprofit that is pushing for the bill. “If you're trying to obtain an appointment and you live in Lamar, and you can only get an appointment in Grand Junction, that's almost seven hours of travel. … That has a big and significant impact.”
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The lack of service doesn't seem to be caused by a dearth of funds. Each year, revenues have far outpaced the expenses of running the program. By the end of June, the DMV is projected to have about $2.9 million in a fund explicitly for the program, according to a January cash-flow analysis. That pot of money is just sitting in a bank account instead of being used to open more locations needed to tackle the program's backlog because of resistance by Republican lawmakers on the state's Joint Budget Committee.
State legislators attempted to appropriate money from the fund in 2016 to open six additional locations and add twenty additional employees, but the bill died in a Senate committee after passing the House. A 2017 bill that also died in a Senate committee attempted to allow for renewals by mail or in person.
This year's bill won't include any additional appropriations to increase service. Martinez says the omission was purposeful: Since it's an election year, activists working on the bill say they don't want to risk tangling the fix to online renewals and Social Security numbers to an appropriation — like they did in 2016 — for fear of it tanking under political pressure. Supporters hope to introduce a separate bill to the Joint Budget Committee for additional appropriations for the program.
"It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it makes the program better," Martinez says. "We’re trying to be mindful of what are the opportunities and not getting held up in some of the politics that come with election years at the Capitol.”