POLITICS

Immigrant activists vow to push Colorado to free up funding for special driving licenses

FILE- in this Aug. 1,2014 file photo, immigrant and longtime resident of the United States, Rosalva Mireles, left, is photographed and processed for her permanent driver's license at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Denver. Colorado immigrant advocates frustrated over long waiting periods for people who want driver's licenses regardless of their legal status have vowed to pressure state lawmakers in the coming months to free up money so the program can meet demand. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

FILE- in this Aug. 1,2014 file photo, immigrant and longtime resident of the United States, Rosalva Mireles, left, is photographed and processed for her permanent driver's license at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Denver. Colorado immigrant advocates frustrated over long waiting periods for people who want driver's licenses regardless of their legal status have vowed to pressure state lawmakers in the coming months to free up money so the program can meet demand. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

Colorado immigration advocates say that Republicans, who control the state legislature, are putting obstacles in the way of undocumented immigrants trying to obtain special driver’s licenses.

The advocates say they are determined to push lawmakers to release funding for the program so that the motor vehicle agencies can keep up with the demand.

Democrats in Colorado cleared the way for the license program in 2013, but Republicans, who now control the state Senate and who oppose it, are making it difficult to access more money to address delays in the system.

Immigrants are waiting months to get specialized driver's licenses and identification cards through three offices. They are charged more than legal residents, and the fees they pay fund the program.
“None of these hikes in rates have helped our community," said Victor Galvan, Denver organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "That money belongs to the community."

Ten states and the District of Columbia have such programs, which supporters say help keep immigrants insured and informed about the rules of the road. Opponents argue that the licenses condone illegal behavior.

The GOP has fought back in other states that give licenses to those in the U.S. illegally or with temporary legal status. In New Mexico, Republican Gov. Susan Martinez, the nation's only Latino governor, has tried to repeal the law a number of times, but her efforts have stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The New York Times said that the wait in Colorado for driver’s licenses, which always has been rather long, now goes into the spring of 2016.

I cannot renew it,” said Felipe Castro, a 51-year-old from Mexico who told the New York Times that he depends on his job to get to work.“We suffer. When we have one crash, we are ready to lose everything. We go to jail. We suffer the deportation.”

Only three offices process applications for state ID cards and the driver’s licenses.

Undocumented residents are charged more than legal residents, and the fees they pay fund the program.

"None of these hikes in rates have helped our community," said Victor Galvan, Denver organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "That money belongs to the community."

In Colorado, the special driver's licenses cost $50.50, compared with the $21 that legal residents pay. Immigrant identification cards are $14, also higher than the $10.50 paid by everyone else.

Galvan's organization and other immigrant advocates, including Mi Famila Vota and Driver's Licenses for All, plan to begin lobbying legislators next month as they start work on a new state budget.

Colorado vastly underestimated the initial surge in demand for the licenses, a problem Democrats are now facing.

Since the program became operational in August 2014, 14,299 immigrants have received driver's licenses and an additional 2,218 have received driving permits, according to state figures. An additional 2,278 have gotten ID cards.

"We believe it's fully funded — fully funded to the law that was passed," said Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, who chairs the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee.

But immigrant groups say many more are waiting for licenses. Appointments are being booked 90 days in advance.

"Demand for this program has been very high," said Daria Serna, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue. "Once appointments are released, they usually go very quickly and we do not have appointments go unclaimed. Our available resources do not allow us to serve everyone interested in this program in a timely manner."

However, she also notes that people are not showing up — there have been more than 5,000 missed appointments since the program launched.

Back then, appointments were handled at five locations. The Department of Revenue asked in January to spend $166,000 in program fees to permanently hire some temporary workers and potentially expand to other offices to address high demand.

The department is now operating three offices under a compromise that party leaders struck in March to allow the agency to use $66,000 in fees.

Colorado has 180,000 residents in the country illegally, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which released a study in August on the states that allow driver's licenses regardless of legal status.

Supporters of the licenses favor it because they say it makes everyone safer when immigrants know the driving laws and safety rules, and have the document to show it.

Opponents of allowing undocumented immigrants to drive say it merely sends the message that their unlawful presence here is condoned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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