Easier access sought for driver’s licenses

Tancredo, other opponents see politics driving the issue
The Colorado Statesman

Proponents of a ballot proposal that would offer Colorado driver’s licenses to all residents of the state whether they are a legal resident or an undocumented immigrant are busy gathering signatures despite cries that the initiative would legitimize illegal behavior.

The petition specifications for Initiative 52 have been approved by the secretary of state and proponents have until Aug. 6 to collect the 86,105 valid signatures needed to place the initiative on the November ballot. Proponents had only collected just over 6,500 signatures as of the May 22 public announcement of the initiative.

“We have a long way to go,” Jose Sanchez, spokesman for the I-52 campaign, said at the Capitol following the press conference there announcing the proposal. “This is why we called this press conference, because we need people to come out and give us their signatures.”

The proposal asks Colorado voters to make a statutory change to approve driver’s licenses for all, despite legal residential status. In order to obtain a driver’s license in Colorado under I-52, applicants would be required to pass the state driving test, as well as show their Individual Tax Identification Number issued by the Internal Revenue Service; provide a Colorado tax return from the previous year; and present one government-issued form of identification from their country of origin. The idea is to require proof of identity, residency in Colorado and economic contributions to the state in order to qualify.

The stated purpose is to “make communities stronger, the economy healthier, and the roads safer,” according to proponents, who argue 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 if they are involved in one.

“Initiative 52 would allow more people to take the driver’s test, learn the rules of the road, and get insurance — increasing safety for them and all other drivers,” said Jose Ortiz, one of two primary I-52 proponents. “Allowing everyone in our state to apply for a driver’s license or a state ID enables the state to identify who is residing within our communities. An ID or driver’s license will also encourage undocumented Colorado residents to come forward who are victims of, or witnesses to a crime.”

Only two states, New Mexico and Washington, provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Utah offers Driving Privilege Cards, but they cannot be used for government-issued identification purposes.

Supporters point out that up until 1999, all residents of Colorado were able to obtain a driver’s license regardless of legal residency status. In 2006, Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill that created new rules for obtaining a driver’s license, including presenting secured forms of identification, such as an original birth certificate. I-52 proponents would like the state to go back to the system that was in place before 1999.

“We believe in this initiative because it’s for our contributing neighbors and friends,” said Jennifer Piper, a volunteer with the I-52 campaign. “As a third-generation Coloradan, I remember what it was like before 1999 when people could get a driver’s license, and I remember what they said when they passed the law saying people could no longer get it. They said that people would go home; that if we made it hard enough that people would go away. We all know that has not been the case.”

Proponents claim to be a group of grassroots volunteers, and their campaign finance filings would support the assertion. An issue committee, Driver’s Licenses For All, has been established, and it has reported only $1,769 in total contributions as of May 30, mostly from individuals and small businesses, including a couple of small insurance agencies. Highlighting the grassroots effort, a collection was taken up at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Denver during which $360 was collected from individual supporters.

Tancredo sees politics at play

But not everyone buys the grassroots effort. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, immediately questioned the motivation behind the initiative, suggesting that safety is not the top goal, but that political motivations are at play.

“This is a very extensive undertaking, you’re going to need somebody with a lot of bucks to do it and they will have an agenda… and believe me, it’s not just to make life easier for illegal aliens, it is really to, among other things, have something on the ballot here in Colorado that will generate a lot of activity and will get… Democrats [out to vote], and that’s what this is all about,” said Tancredo, who added that the Latino vote is very important to Democrats and to President Barack Obama’s re-election.

More to his concerns with the specific proposal itself, Tancredo raises issues with legitimizing illegal immigration by offering identical privileges given to American citizens, such as a driver’s license, calling I-52 “perverse,” “crazy” and “terrible” public policy.

“When you do something that’s illegal there’s a presumption that something negative will happen to you, and right now if you break into this country and violate our immigration laws, only good things happen to you,” he said. “You get a much better life than from wherever you were, you get your children educated at the taxpayer’s expense… you will get free medical care for your whole family, and now they want you to get a… driver’s license so that you can get around freely. It’s really a pretty good deal, it’s certainly a better deal than we give people who come in the right way.”

But Sanchez, the spokesman for the campaign, says a driver’s license does not equate to the same rights as legal residents and citizens. He says in the end, undocumented immigrants will still remain undocumented, which is the toughest burden of all.

“We understand that there are different opinions in the community. We know that people see this as a way not to be legally here in the State of Colorado,” he said. “But that is not true. Getting a driver’s license does not mean that you are a citizen of the United States; that you are legally in the country. It’s just a way for people to identify who they are, to come out of the shadows and say, ‘This is who I am and I’m trying to follow the law as much as I can.’”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com