Immigrant drivers-license bill moves forward in Colorado legislature

Greg Campbell | Contributor

The Colorado state Senate has adopted a bill making it easier for some noncitizen residents to obtain drivers licenses, a move that a Republican opponent equated to providing amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“I think a more appropriate title would be the Colorado Amnesty Act, because it is providing a means to be legal, at least on the road when driving, when the individual is in fact not here legally,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg during the debate on Wednesday. “It is a major step towards amnesty, and that is the concern that I have.”

But bill sponsor Sen. Jessie Ulibarri said the bill is aimed at a narrow segment of the population, such as noncitizens who are in the United States on legal work visas or whose legal status has lapsed because of backlogs in Washington, D.C.

The point of the bill, he said, was to encourage noncitizens to apply for legal licenses — which can only be obtained after passing various driving tests — in order to make Colorado roads safer.

Illegal immigrants still drive, he said, but they often do so without knowing the rules of the road or being insured.

“Colorado has had a policy on our books that discourages honesty at the expense of public safety,” he said. “We’ve seen a large impact on public safety, where individuals drive their families to school or to work or to church … but are doing so without a license and often without insurance.”

Ulibarri said the bill was a response to the dysfunctional federal approach to immigration reform that has left states to deal with the issue on their own.

“We know that the federal government’s inability to enact immigration reform has created severe cultural, economic, and political strains in communities across Colorado,” he said.

Ulibarri said the documents required for the new category of license are meant to prove applicants’ identity, that they’re on the government’s radar and that they’ve paid taxes. Applicants would have to provide a tax ID number from the IRS, a letter from the state Department of Revenue certifying that they’ve paid last year’s state income taxes and an official ID from their country of origin.

“If you don’t have all of those identity documents, you cannot receive the drivers license, plain and simple,” he said.

The license will have a distinctive look so that it can’t be mistaken for a regular drivers license. It will clearly state on the front that it can’t be used for federal identification purposes, for voting or for receiving any public benefits.

“The purpose of this license is to ensure that you know the rules of the road so that you can become licensed and ultimately become insured,” he said. “That has public safety benefits for all of us.”

Ulibarri cited statistics from Utah and New Mexico, which both cut their numbers of uninsured motorists after adopting similar laws.

But Lundberg pointed to an estimate that some 60,000 Colorado residents would qualify for the new licenses to refute Ulibarri’s claim that the bill is tailored to a narrow segment of the population.

“It involves any adult that is here in the state illegally,” Lundberg said, adding that measures like these don’t encourage illegal immigrants to follow the proper path toward citizenship.

“We do have a big problem of people driving on our roads illegally — because they are here illegally and they can’t get a drivers license,” he said. “You don’t [solve the problem] by putting amnesty in place. You make the problem worse.”

“This bill goes as far down the road to amnesty as we could bite off in one chunk,” Lundberg said.

The Senate passed the measure Thursday on a party-line vote. It now moves to the state House for debate.

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