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A Snarled Route to Driver’s Licenses for Immigrants in Colorado

2 Jun

DENVER — For weeks, Fernando Gonzalez stayed up until 3 a.m., reloading a state government web page to snag a scarce appointment for his wife, Mara, to get her driver’s license. They came here illegally from Mexico nine years ago, and they are among the hundreds of thousands queuing up across the country as states expand driver’s license programs for undocumented immigrants.

“You have to wait, because all the people are applying,” Mr. Gonzalez, 39, who runs a small cleaning business, said outside the motor vehicle licensing offices here, as he and his daughter waited for Ms. Gonzalez to finish her driving test. After months of waiting, rescheduled appointments, a written test and preparatory trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles to make sure they had all the necessary documents, the driving test was the final hurdle.

Colorado’s new program to license immigrant drivers ground to a near halt this winter after Republicans in the State Senate blocked money to keep its five overburdened offices running. But after an outcry from people who support the program — including immigration advocates as well as law enforcement and business groups — lawmakers cobbled together a compromise that let a handful of D.M.V. offices across the state resume granting immigrants licenses. On Monday, the reopened offices began handling applicants.

The debate over immigrant driver’s licenses in a state that is one-fifth Hispanic became a proxy fight over immigration between Democrats and Republicans, who each control one chamber of the General Assembly. Supporters said that licensing immigrants would make the roads safer by educating drivers and making them likelier to carry insurance. Opponents said it would encourage illegal immigration and serve as a faulty patch for a broken federal immigration system.

As the debate stalled the program, undocumented immigrants said they were facing monthslong delays or had driven hundreds of miles to the one remaining office in Denver that was still able to grant them licenses, identification cards and learner’s permits. Many stayed up to the early-morning hours to sign up online when new appointment times opened up.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” said State Senator Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat and one of the license program’s leading supporters. He said the state needed at least 10 offices to keep pace with demand.

Two more offices — one in Colorado Springs, south of here, and one in the western city of Grand Junction — are now able to handle applications. But already, every slot through August is taken, and people say they are still unable to schedule appointments. Some say they are refreshing the state website again and again. Others hear this when they call for an appointment: “Due to high call volume, we are unable to take your call at this time.”

Irlanda Herrera, 16, woke up at 6:30 a.m. to drive down to Denver with her parents from their home in the mountain town of Granby, near Rocky Mountain National Park. Standing in the parking lot outside the D.M.V. as her parents sifted through their paperwork, she said she was there to help translate for her father, a painter who said he needed a license for work.

“They’ve been applying since the start,” she said. “My dad’s stressed out.”

Applicants have to prove their identity and bring papers showing their residency in Colorado such as bills, tax documents and pay stubs. But Ms. Herrera’s parents were missing a crucial document. They turned around and started the two-hour drive home.

Colorado has issued 9,511 driver’s licenses under the program since it began last summer, and officials estimate there are 150,000 unauthorized immigrants who qualify. At first, the state had enough slots to see an average of 3,845 people each month, but after funds dried up and most of the offices closed, that number fell to about 857.

In the absence of broad federal immigration legislation, the battle over licensing immigrant drivers has taken place state by state. Sixteen states considered bills this year on licenses for noncitizens, though most of the measures failed or are still being considered, according to the National Immigration Law Center. In all, 10 states and the District of Columbia now offer some form of a driver’s license to noncitizens.

A bill granting limited licenses to noncitizens did pass Hawaii’s Legislature and is now waiting for a signature or veto from the governor. And in Nebraska, lawmakers who drew national attention for overturning the state’s death penalty also overrode the governor’s action to block people who had been brought illegally to the United States as young children from getting driver’s licenses.

At the Denver D.M.V. offices, Mr. Gonzalez and his daughter waited hopefully as Ms. Gonzalez finished her test. She said that she tried to avoid driving, but that she sometimes had to get in the car to run errands and felt a terrified twinge whenever she saw a police car. A license would change that, she said.

“All the time, I’m nervous,” she said.

But as Ms. Gonzalez and the tester pulled back into the parking lot, she walked back shaking her head. “No lo pasaste?” her husband asked. No, she had not passed, she told him. She had made a left turn incorrectly and had to work on her hand position on the steering wheel. She had to practice more, and Mr. Gonzalez said he would return to the computer to start trying to schedule another appointment.