Senate bill would simply how migrants can acquire a driver’s license

Immigrants who are in the country without authorization or have temporary legal status have been able to get Colorado driver’s licenses and state IDs for nearly a decade, but now lawmakers want to expand the program to make it even more accessible.

The law creating the program — which is paid for by applicant fees — passed in 2013 and went into effect in 2014, making Colorado the 11th state to implement such a policy. And in 2019, the governor signed another law to increase the number of DMV locations that offer the licenses. The legislation was backed by farmers, dairy owners and business owners who had said it would make it easier for their employees to get to work and to operate machinery. Others also supported the measure because it would encourage more people to get driving instruction, and they could obtain vehicle insurance and registration.

This year, if Senate Bill 24-182 passes, the law would simplify conditions for who can apply to get the state IDs, including removing a requirement that immigrants have to be Colorado residents for at least two years. That means newcomers, such as migrants who have been arriving from Venezuela, would also be able to apply for the program.

“The reality is that’s been a contradiction all along,” said Siena Mann, policy lead for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “We really want people to be licensed and safe on our roads, but you have to wait two years.”

The goal of the proposed changes, Mann said, is to make them more consistent with requirements for U.S. citizens obtaining those IDs.

Since 2014, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition has worked with the Department of Revenue to streamline the process and helped lawmakers pass changes to the program. Agency spokesperson Derek Kuhn said he was unable to comment on pending legislation.

This year’s bill seeks to make it easier to verify applicants’ identities and shorten the time they have to wait to get licenses, Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and bill sponsor, told lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing earlier this month. Her fellow sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, said the program has onerous requirements on documentation and requires some immigrants, including those who have legal status, to wait years before they can obtain licenses.

“Eleven years ago, this state, in a bipartisan manner, recognized that it shouldn’t matter where you’re born when obtaining a driver’s license,” Gonzales said. “It really matters whether you know the rules of the road and ensuring that drivers on our roads … are able to safely obtain credentials from our Department of Revenue is important.”

Supporters have also cited the benefit of more drivers on the road having insurance, which could help lower premiums for all drivers. The Colorado State Patrol was among the backers of the latest proposal because of its benefits to road safety and because it could help law enforcement more easily identify people.

An expansion of the program would also mean immigrants have more access to employment opportunities, noted Sophie Shea of the Colorado Fiscal Institute at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on April 12.

“Research shows that a lack of access to a driver’s license means people spend more time trying to get around and less time making purchases, including larger items such as homes, vehicles or household appliances,” Shea said. “Furthermore, access to driver’s licenses promotes economic mobility by expanding job options because that person is able to seek employment where there are more opportunities, which may be further from their home.”

The Colorado Fiscal Institute reported that the 2014 law resulted in about 170,000 more vehicle registrations, increasing state and local government revenues, and that Colorado drivers save an estimated $127 million in insurance premiums every year because of it.

Between August 2014 and February 2024, the DMV issued 279,914 permits, licenses and state IDs under the program, according to data provided to The Denver Post by the Department of Revenue. In 2022, almost 4.5 million people were licensed in Colorado, records show.

Only one person, Erin Meschke of Boulder, spoke against the legislation at the Senate committee hearing. She said lawmakers should not be making it easier for immigrants to obtain licenses if they’ve broken any immigration laws. Since the 2014 law already passed, however, she asked that only official documents from immigrants’ countries of origin be accepted to verify identities so immigrants don’t try to vote with their state IDs.

Mann clarified the legislation doesn’t change anyone’s federal immigration status or give them the right to vote.

For Jennifer Villalba of Douglas County, getting the license “changed her life.”

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