Colorado’s law to provide undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses takes effect Friday and is playing out against the backdrop of heightened attention to the issue in light of the crisis on the Texas border.
The law’s supporters say it will make the roads safer and provide legal recognition for thousands of undocumented immigrants who have lived and paid taxes in the state for years.
But, they say, it’s a far less ideal scenario than Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“Ignoring the reality that we are working with a completely broken immigration system does no one any good,” said Democratic state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the Colorado lawmaker who sponsored the license bill Gov. John Hickenlooper signed last June.
“Because of their inaction, we are stuck with the patchwork of state laws,” he added.
The law’s opponents, on the other hand, think the measure will only encourage more undocumented immigrants to migrate to the U.S.
“We consider the Colorado state Legislature and the Colorado governor to be partly responsible for the surge on the border,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which believes in reduced immigration.
He and others who oppose the law say it provides “enticements” to undocumented immigrants and the false impression that the U.S. will accept them.
In many ways, the law’s opponents echo the many congressional Republicans who have criticized President Barack Obama on his immigration policies, including a 2012 executive order in which the president allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country without the threat of deportation.
“Colorado sent the welcome message into Central America and really anywhere in the world,” Beck added, in reference to the influx of more than 50,000 undocumented Central American children at the border since October.
Colorado is one of 11 states, along with the District of Columbia, to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. While most of the states that have enacted license bills are Democratic strongholds, legislation has also passed in Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. In recent years, Colorado has shifted left — it voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators — in part due to its rising Hispanic population. In addition to the driver’s license bill, Colorado also passed legislation last year to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at state universities.
The driver’s license bill, known as SB 251, has some stricter eligibility requirements than in other states with enacted legislation. Before they can take driver’s tests, Colorado undocumented immigrants will have to show their IRS taxpayer ID number, proof of residency in Colorado, identification from their home country and either taxpayer history or proof of continual residence in the state for at least 24 months. The bill won crucial support from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and the County Sheriffs of Colorado.
But many have issued warning signs about the law’s implementation, and The Denver Post reported last week that it will be “plagued with problems.” With only five centers processing claims, the report warned that undocumented immigrants could be waiting months, if not years, just to get an appointment with the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles.
The law’s supporters acknowledge concerns about wait times, but say immigrants remain enthusiastic about their ability to gain licenses — and point out that Congress has kept them waiting far longer.
“People have been waiting for comprehensive immigration reform for years,” said Julie Gonzales, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, which provided legal support for passage and implementation.
Ulibarri emphasized that the bill is primarily about driving safety and making sure undocumented immigrants pass driving examinations. But supporters said the law is also designed to show compassion for Colorado residents “whose humanity has been denied by Congress’s inability to get this legislation passed,” as Gonzales put it.
Some of the law’s critics actually agree with some parts of the bill, saying it makes sense to get immigrants out of the shadows and to improve driver safety. They argue, though, Colorado is making dangerous concessions that will encourage further law-breaking on the border.
Republican state Rep. Mark Waller, who voted against the measure last year, said in an interview that Colorado and the federal government mirror each other — they both want to give resources to noncitizens in tough economic times.
“It takes a tremendous amount of government resources to facilitate those folks being here,” he said of undocumented immigrants. “Regardless of whether it’s a child who crosses the border without a guardian or someone trying to get a driver’s license to go back and forth from their jobs.”
Driver’s licenses laws have increased in recent years, though, and it seems likely that if Congress fails to pass immigration reform, state initiatives like SB 251 will continue to pop up elsewhere. Beck noted that pro-immigration groups and donors are increasingly pouring money into states because of stymied efforts at the federal level.
“I can definitely see some of the more populated immigrant communities trying to do this,” ACLU Colorado Public Policy Director and former White House staffer Denise Maes said of future bills, pointing to some states in the West. “That this bill passed is indication that public sentiment has changed.”