Colorado Overwhelmed by Immigrant License Requests

Undocumented immigrants in Colorado may face waits of a year or more to obtain drivers licenses under a program starting tomorrow, as thousands seeking to apply overwhelm an online scheduling system and available staff.

When the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles started accepting appointments from foreign nationals online July 1, it received as many as 107,500 page views an hour, crashing the system for several days. The DMV expects to process 9,551 applicants through September.

“We are disappointed the department will only give licenses to those who are here unlawfully at five offices and by appointment only,” said Denise Maes, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “They can only take appointments 90 days in advance and all of those are booked.”

The demand for the license program shows states’ challenges as they struggle to assimilate thousands of undocumented immigrants into programs providing identification and housing while also addressing concerns about fraud and terrorism.

Colorado is one of eight states that enacted laws in 2013 allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses, bringing the total to 11 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The programs come as states are looking for ways to house more than 57,000 immigrant children that have crossed into the U.S. to escape drug-related violence.

Hispanic Gains

The Democratic-controlled legislature in Colorado approved the new law as Hispanics, which comprised 21 percent of the population in 2013, gain political influence in a state in which the electorate is evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Colorado’s license program is complicated by a constitutional amendment in the state, known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which mandates new programs must pay for themselves through fees.

“This is a fully self-funded program,” Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Department of Revenue, which includes the DMV, told reporters. “We want to balance the need for provision of service as much as possible to the actual cost of this service.”

Other states, including Nevada, that permit undocumented immigrants to apply for driving privileges also experienced long lines until officials assessed and matched demand, said Jonathan Blazer, San Francisco-based advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fewer Offices

In Nevada, all DMV offices process applications for a drivers authorization card, Blazer said. In Colorado, five of 36 motor vehicle offices will accept appointments for foreign nationals to obtain drivers licenses.

Undocumented immigrants will be required to pay $50.50 for licenses in Colorado, according to the new law. The DMV hired five people and 13 temporary workers to help issue an anticipated 46,523 licenses in the first year.

Lack of money left the DMV unable to begin translating the drivers handbook into Spanish until it received additional funds on July 1, Brohl said. The manual will be available next month, she said.

“That speaks to a lack of adequate planning to me,” Blazer said. “We are in a period where a lot of states are implementing this at the same time and learning what works best. In Colorado, I think it was shortsighted for the law itself to not provide up-front for implementation funds.”

Multiyear Effort

The bill’s passage capped a multiyear effort by immigrant rights advocates in Colorado to secure a law that would allow those in the country illegally to apply for a drivers license.

“We’ve been working on this for more than three years now,” said Tania Valenzuela, a 24-year-old housekeeper who served on a committee that failed in 2011 to collect enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot allowing immigrants to obtain licenses.

“We thought it would roll out well but that hasn’t been the case,” said Valenzuela, who immigrated to Colorado illegally from Chihuahua, Mexico, 16 years ago and drives without a license. “It will take a few years for everybody to secure an appointment and that’s not acceptable -- it’s the law.”

The DMV is trying to improve the program using feedback it received from 2,100 people, Brohl said. The agency translated documents with information about qualification requirements into Spanish and will allow those who obtained appointments starting tomorrow to take their written and drivers tests on the same day, she said.

The intent of the law was to “ensure every single person driving on Colorado roads is licensed and insured,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat from Westminster.

Logistical ‘Challenges’

“There are challenges logistically that we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “The most important thing people can do is understand whether they are eligible for these new licenses.”

Ulibarri said the legislature may seek changes in the program during its next session in January after it assesses whether the high demand will continue.

Foreign nationals applying for licenses must sign affidavits saying they are Colorado residents and provide proof they filed state tax returns the preceding year and evidence of residency, such as a credit card statements.

If they cannot meet those requirements, they can sign an affidavit that they’ve been residents for the past two years with proof of residency. They must also provide taxpayer identification numbers, valid passports, military or consular identification cards and sign affidavits saying they’ve applied, or will apply, for lawful presence in the U.S.

“I do think this will work well in the end,” Blazer said. “The real question is how do you make up for lost time. This is a program that’s so necessary and is in such strong demand.”

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