Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday night pushed through legislation that would offer Colorado driver’s licenses to all residents of the state, whether they are a legal resident, or an undocumented immigrant.
Senate Bill 251, sponsored by Sens. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, and Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, is said to have bipartisan support. But that was not the case Wednesday as the measure passed on a party-line vote of 3-2.
The legislation would approve driver’s licenses for all Coloradans if they:
• Pass the state driving test;
• Submit an Individual Tax Identification Number issued by the Internal Revenue Service;
• Provide a Colorado tax return; and
• Present one government-issued form of identification from their country of origin.
The measure mirrors a ballot effort that immigrant rights activists began last year, but failed to advance because the grassroots campaign did not have the piggybank needed to collect the necessary signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. Still, proponents collected about 30,000 signatures with the little resources they had.
Ulibarri is picking up the slack, seeking to make the statutory change through legislation. He presented the bill as an effort to make communities stronger, the economy healthier and roads safer. He suggested that because undocumented immigrants are unable to obtain a legal driver’s license in Colorado, they are more likely to forgo carrying insurance, or more likely to flee the scene of an accident.
The freshman senator, who is Latino, pointed out that his bill would undo a “problem” that the legislature created 14 years ago when it changed law to prohibit certain identity documents in obtaining a driver’s license.
He estimates that 60,000 Coloradans would be eligible under the legislation.
“It recognizes a simple fact that all of us know, and the tens of thousands of people who showed up in Washington, D.C. to demand comprehensive immigration reform know, is that our system is broken, and it’s been broken for many decades,” Ulibarri addressed the committee.
“We continue to wait for federal action to fix the system, and there are people who are trying to play by the rules and do everything right by making themselves known to state and federal government by paying taxes, by applying for status… But the system is so fundamentally broken that by the end of the day, those folks who try and do everything right are being penalized by a broken system,” Ulibarri continued.
New Mexico, Illinois and Washington currently allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Utah offers Driving Privilege Cards, but they cannot be used for government-issued identification purposes. The Maryland legislature recently sent a bill to its governor that would allow some undocumented immigrants to obtain driving privileges. And Oregon and Minnesota are also considering similar measures.
Ulibarri spent significant time addressing the legislation in Maryland, which sought to address conflicts with federal law. He amended his measure in an effort to mirror Maryland’s bill, which clarifies that licenses would be part of a second category of driver’s licenses, and that they would be marked on the front with “not REAL ID compliant.”
Maryland had run into trouble with the federal government until the Department of Homeland Security advised the legislature there that the “not REAL ID compliant” wording would make the license look “substantially different,” so that it met federal guidelines. Ulibarri acknowledged federal concerns, stating that he does not want the driver’s licenses to work for federal identification, such as when traveling by air, or for voting.
“Colorado is ahead of the curve,” he said. “We’re not putting… our compliance in jeopardy, and as I’ve said, I’ve committed to the Department of Revenue and to the AG’s office that we would ensure that if there are any other concerns or issues that we need to tighten up to maintain our REAL ID compliance status, I will be able to do so.”
Immigrant rights activists attended the hearing, in which several witnesses supported the measure. Many spoke in Spanish with a translator’s help. Surprisingly, there was no opposition offered at the meeting.
One young witness, who was only identified as Jorge, spoke on behalf of his father: “I’m here fighting for my dad. I want him to take me to school, take me to the park, take me to the store, watch a movie, but he can’t because he doesn’t have a driver’s license,” Jorge spoke slowly. “I always want to sit in the back without him thinking that we’re going to be in trouble if we see a cop…”
Julie Gonzales, with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the measure not only makes roads safer, but also offers undocumented immigrants with a means of presenting necessary identification when asked.
“SB 251 solves two problems: it makes our roads safe in that… individuals have more skin in the game,” she said. “But it then also makes our communities more safe in that we won’t have families be separated, because individuals will be able to provide Colorado documentation to Colorado law enforcement officials.”
Denver immigration attorney Hans Meyer also testified in support of the measure: “When people have licenses to drive, obviously they’re going to have incentives to have insurance and maintain insurance,” he said. “They’ll have an incentive to own their cars, they have an incentive to register those vehicles with the State of Colorado, and pay all of those fees. That gives them skin in the game… because once they have that status as a licensed driver, it’s a status that they want to keep.”
Prior to the meeting, it was believed that Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, would join with Democrats in supporting the measure. He said it was one of the hardest bills he’s had to consider as a lawmaker.
But as the hearing progressed, it appeared that King, a former police officer, was concerned with how the measure would actually make Coloradans safer. He suggested that the measure should include a way to collect data on tickets being written to those that don’t have insurance.
“That is the type of thing that I would like to see… One of the biggest things that I see and hear from a law enforcement standpoint is just the number of people driving without insurance, and if we can have an effect on that, then people would feel safer, because at least if you got in a non-injury accident, at least you’re going to get your costs covered…” he told Ulibarri.
“We need to have a scientific way of monitoring that, so that we have the evidence to say this legislation is making people safer in our state,” King continued.
Ulibarri shared data from New Mexico, in which the state reported a 25 percent decline in hit-and-run accidents since enacting its legislation.
Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, was also not convinced that the measure would do anything to increase safety. He pointed out that insured drivers don’t make better drivers.
“I see an uninsured issue in the short term. In the long term, we’ll push in the wrong direction,” he opined. “For all of the assurances that this will be safer, I think you’re taking statistics and moving them around in less than accurate ways. I’m not convinced at all. I believe that this is an issue that will decrease safety ultimately…”
He took the opposition one step further, suggesting that SB 251 is a step toward amnesty, which he adamantly opposes. He believes the legislation would exacerbate problems associated with undocumented immigrants.
“This is one more step down the road of amnesty,” he declared. “I would support amnesty if it worked, if it really would cure the problem. But we’ve been down that road more than once. It doesn’t. It creates a magnet.”