Unauthorized immigrants line up for driver's licenses in Colorado

Unauthorized immigrants line up for driver's licenses in Colorado
Rosalva Mireles is photographed Friday in Denver by Jesus Sanchez of Spanish-language newspaper El Commercio after Mireles applied for her driver's license. (Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

For most people a trip to the Division of Motors Vehicles is a dreaded event. Humberto Cruz-Salas cannot get there fast enough. A month ago, he hopped out of bed and started dialing the DMV to try to make an appointment.

His 2 a.m. effort — yielding a series of busy signals before he abandoned the phone in favor of registering online — was eventually rewarded. His date with the DMV will be Monday at 11:30 a.m. That is when the 21-year-old Cruz-Salas hopes to be finally legal behind the wheel.


On Friday, Colorado became the latest state to begin issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who entered the country illegally. Eleven states — including California — along with the District of Columbia have passed measures to allow those without legal documentation to get licenses.

It is a movement seen as gathering steam across the country despite, or perhaps because of, stalled efforts in Washington to revamp immigration law.

In Colorado as many as 150,000 immigrants could eventually get licenses, advocates say.

"You know you shouldn't be driving, but you have to for your job, for your life," Cruz-Salas said in an interview Friday as he sat in the tidy suburban apartment he shares with his parents and sisters. For years they have all been driving without licenses because of their illegal status, always looking over their shoulders, always fearing a traffic stop could lead to deportation.

"Every day for 18 years I have been nervous. Having a police officer beside you, behind you, brings fear," said his mother, Lourdes Salas, 47, who came to this country from central Mexico when Humberto was 3 and his sister, Ana, now 18, was a baby.

Mexico is no longer home, said Salas, with Ana acting as translator. For nearly two decades she and her husband have lived in the United States, working, paying taxes and raising their children. The couple will have their license appointments on Aug. 14.

"For us immigrants it is a blessing to have that license and to not have fear any longer," she said in Spanish. Then, in English, she added: "Very happy."

The Colorado law is seen as stricter than some others across the country. Applicants must pass a written exam and driving test. Their licenses cost $30 more than regular state driver's licenses to cover the added processing.

Those applying for the special licenses will also need their taxpayer ID numbers, proof of current Colorado residency, identification from their home countries, and either their tax returns from the preceding year or proof of continuous state residency for the last two years. They also must sign affidavits that they have, or will, apply for lawful residency in the United States.

The licenses will carry a black stripe across the top to distinguish them from regular state driver's licenses so they cannot be used for such things as voter identification or to board planes.

More than 9,000 appointments had been made for the next three months.

Proponents of the law, signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last summer, say that even though the vote was split in the General Assembly almost entirely along party lines, the measure is mostly one of safety rather than politics.

State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat from the racially and culturally mixed northern suburbs of Denver, said Thursday that he sponsored the bill to make sure that those driving on Colorado's streets and highways have passed the rules of the road and are insured. But as a third-generation Colorado Latino, it was also personal.

He has heard "horror stories" of those in accidents who were not at fault but ended up paying for damages because the other driver took advantage of their status.


Still, Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, an advocacy group in Washington seeking to reduce the number of immigrants in the country — both legal and illegal — is far from thrilled. He blames Colorado lawmakers and the governor for fostering what he calls a welcoming climate for illegal immigration.

"This is just one of the ingredients of why we now have the surge on the border," he said.

There has been concern that the state's computer system would shudder under the weight of the task of issuing thousands of new licenses.

When Colorado officials allowed people to apply online beginning July 1 — a month before the start date — the website received more than 100,000 hits, temporarily crashing the system.

The first 60 days of appointments at the five sites were filled in less than a week.

"There is so much excitement and energy around this. It's been fun watching friends studying for their driver's tests," said Julie Gonzales, co-chairwoman of the Colorado Latino Forum, an advocacy group. She also works as a paralegal for a Denver law firm that handles immigration cases. "This is an affirmation that immigrants in Colorado contribute to our tax base and that they have built their lives here."

Cruz-Salas was arrested for DUI at age 18, but his immigration status was never questioned. One of the conditions of his punishment was to obtain a license — something he knew he could not do.

He feels some trepidation about walking into the DMV office next week. "It's risky," he said, but added that he was determined: "I feel like I have been given a privilege."