Infrastructure & Environment

Colorado Unprepared for Immigrant Driver's License Law

July 22, 2014
 

Yolanda Vega, who came to the U.S. illegally in search of a better life, doesn't have a driver's license, yet six days a week she travels miles from the trailer she shares with her husband and teenage daughter outside Durango to clean homes much larger than her own.

Vega, 32, relies on her husband to drive her to work, using a license he obtained years earlier in New Mexico.

Presently, Colorado law makes it impossible for people like her to obtain a driver's license, but a law passed in the state legislature in 2013 is meant to change that, starting Aug. 1.

Hearing that she was eligible for a license under that law, Vega was elated.

"It's important because if you have an accident or something, you would have your license," she told The Denver Post in an interview translated by her daughter. "I could drive to work."

But Vega, who came from Chihuahua, Mexico, will not be getting a driver's license anytime soon. Vega is one of as many as 150,000 people in Colorado illegally who may be seeking a driver's license under the new law, activists say. However, what those in the immigrant community see as problems with the program have made it difficult for potential applicants to sign up.

Only five locations of the state's 56 licensing centers will be issuing the cards — and by appointment only. For applicants like Vega, the dearth of offices and the appointment-only system means months to years of waiting and hours-long drives.

Complicating matters, only a little over four full-time and 13 temporary positions have been added statewide to directly deal with the influx of customers that the law promises to bring. The locations are offering a few dozen appointments daily to issue the licenses, and the Internet and phone scheduling systems slated to organize the demand were so overwhelmed by traffic that both shut down on July 1 after opening as part of a test rollout.

Some people could be waiting more than 3½ years before an appointment is available, given the number of expected applicants and available appointment slots. The estimate is a best-case scenario where all appointment slots are used and the population of potential applicants doesn't grow. The licenses themselves are valid for three years.

Meanwhile, the department, which has had a year to prepare for the new program's start, has yet to translate Colorado's driver's manual into Spanish. Officials say translated manuals are coming soon, warning that they've heard handbooks not officially released by the department are being sold on the black market and may not be accurate. Applicants are responsible for bringing their own translators to the DMV, and they must be licensed drivers.

"It's chaos," said Gabriela Flora, a regional organizer for the American Friends Service Committee and one of the law's supporters who has helped oversee the legislation since its introduction.

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