Driver’s license services hit the slow lane for undocumented immigrants

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Photo: Undocumented immigrant Aleida Ramirez of Denver with her drivers license
Undocumented immigrant Aleida Ramirez, of Denver, with her drivers license.

Starting Monday, there’s only one place in Colorado for undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license — and it could take them years to get one. That’s after Republicans in the state Legislature last month drastically reduced the program.

One of those drivers license holders, Aleida Ramirez of Denver, still clings to her old license, faded and battered, held together by tape. It expired two years ago. But Ramirez wouldn’t think of throwing it out.

“It’s my treasure. I mean, this is my only proof that I’ve been living in this state. This is the only proof that I have that I’ve been working hard, that I want to be here,” she said.

Ramirez has lived illegally in the United States for the past 25 years. She got her license when Colorado’s law’s were more lax. But even though she can’t drive legally now, she is still on the road.

“I don’t know what it going to happen if I get involved in accident, or if I get stopped by police. I just try to be really, really careful,” she said.

Two years ago, Democrats in Colorado’s state Legislature voted to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses again. The program went into effect last July and demand has been strong, with DMV appointments filling up as soon as they’re available. But Ramirez hasn’t been able to get one yet. And she’ll likely have to wait a lot longer.

Photo: State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs
State Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee.

The program is paid for by an extra fee charged on undocumented immigrant driver’s licenses. But the DMV needs permission from the legislature’s budget committee to spend the money it has already collected. And the committee is deadlocked. Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, the committee's chair, has said that he knows of no Republican who supported the program when it was made law, and now that his party controls the Senate, they are free to do as they please.

“We don’t condone the activity, we don’t condone the policy. How can we condone the funding of it? said Republican state Sen. Kevin Grantham, who sits on the budget committee. He believes giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants sends the wrong message.

“We have essentially, through the legislation passed in 2013, authorized a state agency to condone and license an illegal activity, which is being in this country illegally,” he said.

With control of the Assembly split between the parties, Republicans don’t have the votes to repeal the driver’s license policy outright, but they can block funding for it. Democratic state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, an original sponsor of the driver’s license bill, attacked their vote to hold up that money with the worst insult possible in politics: He compared it to Congress.

“We know that in Washington, D.C., the Republicans can’t pass a bill through the Senate and the House, so they tack things onto the budget. That was the same tactic that was used here by Colorado Republicans and I think Colorado voters want a better process in our state capital than what we witness in DC,” he said.

Even so, starting today, any undocumented immigrant in Colorado who wants a driver’s license will have to take their test at a crowded DMV office on Denver’s southwest side. Of the five offices statewide that used to offer the licenses, it’s the only one still going — and the slots are full for the rest of the year. And the DMV is telling people who don’t have appointments to check back next January.

That’s a concern for Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, who is also head of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, which sees the licenses as public safety issue.

“The truth is, it does help people be more responsible. Many times there are hit and run accidents and people have said to us they didn’t feel comfortable staying because they either didn’t have insurance or didn’t have a driver’s license,” he said.

That makes sense to Aleida Ramirez, the Denver mother driving on an expired license. She sees renewing her license as one more way to show that she knows how to play by the rules.

“Even though I’m not legal in the country, I’m responsible. I know I have to be responsible,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers in the statehouse are hoping Ramirez won’t have to wait that long for a license. They’re likely to try to amend the upcoming state budget to unlock funding for the program.