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To Cut Wait Times, New Bill Wants To Expand Access For Undocumented Driver's Licenses

Stephen Butler
Flickr - Creative Commons

A bill to expand a state program to offer driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in Colorado will be introduced at the state capitol later in February. The original law [.pdf], which Democrats passed when they controlled both chambers in 2013, allows undocumented immigrants who have lived in Colorado for at least two years and have paid taxes to get a license, if they pay an extra fee.

"I want to know when I'm driving that the people driving next to me know the same rules as I do. Especially when you come from a different country, road signs might look different," said Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), sponsor of a new bill that would expand the program to 32 driver's license offices across the state.

"They deserve the opportunity to show that they are willing to be a part of our community, willing to play by the rules."

The current program operates in Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction and suffers from a lack of funding authority to expand. The Colorado Department of Revenue says it has collected nearly $1.6 million in fees, but lawmakers only authorized the department to spend less than half that amount for the program.

As a result, wait times can be up to two years, leaving many undocumented immigrants standing in line.

"I've never had an accident and I'm very careful, but I don't want to get into an accident, not having a driver's license to cover myself," said Marvin, a handy man from Greeley who didn't want to use his last name because he's living in the country illegally.

Originally from Guatemala, Marvin said he has to drive for work and has been unable to get a license through the program after trying for a year.

"I just put 400 calls to see if I can get an appointment, and it's impossible," he said.

So impossible that Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is now investigating cases of people hording and selling appointment times for prices as high as $1,000. But unless the program is offered in more places it won't change.

Another challenge to opening additional offices is opposition to the program overall. Republicans who blocked the spending authority in the previous session strongly oppose expansion. Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) would prefer the driver's license program go away and doesn't support "facilitating the policy with additional offices all over the state."

"To give a driver's license to somebody who is not in the country legally gives a tacit legal status to their presence and that is sending a message loud and clear that if you get here we'll make it OK later on," Lundberg said.

Department of Revenue figures show the state has issued nearly 18,000 licenses so far. Immigrant activists estimate about 150,000 people qualify for the program. Rep. Jonathan Singer is hopeful both parties can negotiate and find a middle ground to improve access.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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