Colorado's dairy and livestock industries backed bipartisan legislation Thursday to expand a state program in which residents who are in the country illegally can obtain drivers licenses and identification cards.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 5-2 to advance the bill, which would increase the number of Department of Motor Vehicles offices offering the special licenses and other documents from three to 10 across the state.
Agriculture and immigrant rights advocates have long lobbied for an expansion of the program, which under its current form has produced months-long wait times for immigrants seeking licenses and often requires them to leave their jobs for days at a time to drive hundreds of miles for a DMV appointment.
The scarcity of DMV slots also has led to illegal sales of appointment times, a practice targeted several years ago by then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and cited on Thursday by Brock Herzberg, director of government affairs for the Colorado Dairy Farmers Association.
"Most of our dairies are in northeast Colorado and they're having to send employees to Grand Junction" to get an appointment, Herzberg said. "Some of these appointments are being sold for up to $1,000 for a time slot."
"Our system is kind of lagging behind the demand for this and the need for it," said Herzberg, who also was speaking for the Colorado Livestock Association. Dairy, cattle and produce farmers run around-the-clock operations and need their workers to legally operate farm and ranch machinery.
"This is the life that we lead every day," said Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, whose southwestern Colorado district includes thousands of immigrants working in agriculture and construction. "I truly believe that this is a matter of public safety so we can get these individuals licensed."
The program was enacted to help Colorado's $8 billion agriculture industry and, by licensing drivers and inducing them to get insurance, help make roads safer. The program is paid for by fees paid by license applicants than are higher than those charged U.S. citizens.
Applicants must prove they live in Colorado and can use Social Security Numbers or individual taxpayer identification numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service to obtain the documents. The licenses are clearly marked to ensure the holders cannot use them vote.
Colorado began issuing the licenses in 2014. Since then, more than 61,000 licenses and nearly 11,000 learners' permits have been issued to people unable to demonstrate they are in the U.S. legally, said Sarah Werner, spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue, which oversees the DMV.
A 2018 law sought to alleviate the DMV crunch by allowing people to renew the three-year licenses online or by mail. This year's bill allows DMV immigrant services to be offered in Alamosa, Glenwood Springs, Lamar, Montrose, Pueblo and Sterling, as well as in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Lakewood.
The DMV hopes all 10 offices will be operating by sometime in 2020.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia offer special licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.