New immigrants could apply for driver’s licenses immediately under Colorado proposal

Courtesy Michael Fajardo/via Flickr
The Fort Collins driver’s license office, May 2019.

New immigrants arriving in Colorado could apply for driver’s licenses immediately, instead of waiting two years — if a proposed bill passes the state legislature.

“It shouldn’t matter where you’re born,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat sponsoring the measure. “It really matters whether you know the rules of the road.”

The state already allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, but they currently must live in the state for at least two years before they qualify. The proposed measure, SB24-182, would drop that and several other requirements. 

Applicants still would have to pass a written test, vision screening and driving test and pay a fee, according to the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. The bill advanced through the Senate Judiciary committee on a 4-1 vote Monday, drawing support from all the panel’s Democrats and from Republican Sen. Perry Will, while GOP Sen. Kevin Van Winkle was opposed.

Cosponsor Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat, framed the bill as a safety measure. An estimated 40,000 new immigrants have passed through Denver. Many have stayed in the area and are driving for work and other purposes, regardless of whether they have a license.

“They have to wait years. They have difficulty obtaining the particular kinds of identifying information,” Bridges said. “Really, we’re just creating barriers to folks that are on our roads anyway. The most important thing we can do here is make sure everyone on our roads knows the rules of roads and has access to the insurance coverage they need.”

In the House, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Tim Hernández, also a Democrat.

The bill would also allow immigrants to get driver's licenses even if they haven’t filed a state tax return or gotten a social security number or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), both of which are current requirements.

An immigrant driver's license cannot be used to vote or obtain public benefits, Gonzales said.

One opponent of the measure argued that it would draw more unauthorized immigrants to Colorado.

“We should not be making it more attractive for people to break immigration laws by making identification easier to obtain if they have broken laws to get to Colorado,” Erin Meschke of Boulder told the committee.

The measure also would loosen requirements for identification to get a license. 

Currently, undocumented applicants must choose from a short list of identifying documents — they must have a passport, consular identification card or military identification document before they get a license in Colorado.

The bill would allow them to instead use:

  • A photocopy of a passport from their home country
  • A voter identification card from their home country
  • A driver’s license, instruction permit or identification card from their home country
  • Certain other identification cards issued by federal immigration, justice and health authorities

People could use expired versions of those documents, as long as they had expired sometime within the previous ten years 

The Colorado State Patrol supports the change, with Col. Matthew Packard telling lawmakers that the bill is a “common sense” measure because it would protect innocent people’s identities and help law enforcement identify wrongdoers.

“I believe this is one step closer to dignity,” said Sen. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat on the committee.

Immigration reformers have long fought to help more immigrants get driver’s licenses.

In 2013, a new law allowed the state to issue licenses and permits to unauthorized immigrants. Gonzales was one of the advocates who helped get that measure passed. The 2013 law reversed an earlier 1999 law that had blocked undocumented immigrants from driving legally.

Colorado was one of the first states to pass such a law. As of 2023, 20 other states and Washington, D.C. had passed laws allowing licenses for undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Last year, Colorado expanded the availability of the licenses, offering them at all 36 state driver's license offices. More than 200,000 people have used the program in Colorado, according to CIRC. The Colorado Fiscal Institute, a progressive nonprofit, has estimated that has resulted in $127 million of savings on Coloradans’ insurance premiums.

The direct costs from this year’s proposal are expected to be about $250,000 over two years.

In a statement, Gov. Jared Polis’ office lauded the bill’s goals, but didn’t specifically endorse it:

“Making sure that more drivers in Colorado are fully trained, licensed and insured is critical to help reduce automobile insurance costs for all Coloradans. The Governor will continue to monitor this legislation as it moves through the process.” 

The bill heads next to the Senate Appropriations committee, and then the full Senate floor. If it gets through that chamber, it will then be considered in the House.