Demand outpaces driver's licenses for immigrants in Colorado

Colorado's 155 driver's license appointments a day for immigrants in U.S. illegally can't meet demand

For Cristina Chavez it has become a middle-of-the-night ritual. For the last two months, after a long shift of cleaning offices, the 33-year-old who is in this country illegally logs onto her computer about 1 a.m., trying for her first driver's license in America.

But each time the result is the same: no appointment available.

On Aug. 1, Colorado became the 11th state to allow immigrants like Chavez to get driver's licenses. The 2013 state law, heralded as historic for its bipartisan support, was billed as a way to make roadways safer because those living here illegally would have to pass driving tests and carry insurance.

Since then, however, the program has been mired in a pile of woes, including a frustrating and often impenetrable scheduling system that allows only 155 appointments per day statewide despite estimates that more than 150,000 people are eligible.

Denver immigration attorney Hans Meyer describes these people as "stuck in licensing purgatory."

"The reality is that many people are going to have to wait for years," he says. "It's like they are trying to force a fire hose worth of demand through a garden hose worth of supply."

Officials acknowledge they may have underestimated the interest and urgency of applicants, but that only adds to Chavez's worry.

"I'm scared. I have to drive to get to work, to get groceries, to take care of my son," she says. Ten years ago she entered the country illegally from Mexico. She hates driving without a license and hates the panic she feels when she passes a police car, knowing a traffic stop could mean deportation and separation from her young son, who is a citizen born in this country. "We need to be together. We are a family."

She knows dozens of others who, like her, have been unable to get appointments despite months of trying. The true number is unknown.

Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 10, about 8,000 appointments were successfully made. So far, 6,701 people have been issued 4,131 licenses, learner's permits and ID cards, says Daria Serna, communications director for the Colorado Department of Revenue. Of those appointments, there were more than 1,200 no-shows. Others failed the tests or did not have the required documentation, such as a utility bill proving they lived in Colorado the previous two years and a passport from their home country.

An appointment calendar for each of the participating DMV offices displays only three months at a time, although applicants can also call to try to book an appointment during regular business hours. If no appointment times are available, an operator will encourage them to try again, Serna says. Only five of 56 Division of Motor Vehicles offices, however, are set up to handle the special licensing process: Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Grand Junction.

One big stumble came last month when a computer glitch sent invalid licenses to hundreds of those who thought they had navigated the difficult process. The state has asked those who got these licenses to return them.

Now, as the November election nears, the political climate surrounding the new law has turned chilly.

Bob Beauprez, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who once supported the law, vows to repeal it if elected. Meanwhile, some Latino groups have threatened to withdraw their support to reelect Gov. John Hickenlooper because they say the Democrat has grown too quiet and done too little to help a program he once championed.

"I'm sitting this one out," activist Patricia Ramirez says of the governor's race. "They are all for supporting us when they want our vote. But now, they don't love us, we don't love them."

She says the delays and glitches in the system have bred mistrust. The 60-year-old with the grass-roots group Licenses For All is a U.S. citizen but feels a kinship with those in the country illegally. "I'm so embarrassed. I worked so hard to talk people into applying for licenses. It takes a lot for someone who is undocumented, someone who has spent years hiding, to suddenly walk into a government office and say, 'Here I am.'"

Ramirez and others wonder whether the delays are a symptom of dwindling political interest. "It's like fishing in a lake that doesn't have any fish," Ramirez says. "It's a system that was set up to fail."

Not so, say state officials and lawmakers. Though sympathetic to the frustration some may feel, they say any problems are growing pains that can be fixed with tweaks to the law and more funding next year. The original proposal allocated $855,686 for implementation, but by the time the bill reached the governor's desk that amount was slashed to $436,291.

"The process is working. Not as fast as I would like, but it is working, and those people who have gone through the process are very happy," says state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat from a racially diverse district in the northern suburbs of Denver and one of the original sponsors. He would like to see offices in rural or mountain towns eventually be equipped to handle requests. But for now he worries that if Latinos skip voting in the tight governor's election it could tip the balance to Beauprez, which would put the law in jeopardy.

Chris Ward, fiscal note manager for the Colorado Legislative Council, is aware of the complaints and is sympathetic, but he thinks the conspiracy theories are out of line: "I don't think there was some plan to keep people from getting licenses, but it may seem like that is happening."

Instead, there was always a "built-in expectation that not everyone would apply in the beginning," he says. The state predicted about 30,000 to 40,000 of the 150,000 eligible would apply in the first year — an estimate he believes is on track.

Chavez is less sure. "There are a lot of people who don't like us," she says. But she is not giving up. "I will keep trying. I have to."

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