Wow! Colorado approves Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants
By DAN FROSCH
DENVER — In one of their final acts before wrapping up the Colorado legislative session on Wednesday, lawmakers approved a bill allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses, making the state one of only a handful to have passed such a measure.
The legislation, which received final approval on Tuesday, allows immigrants to get special licenses if they can prove they pay taxes and meet several other requirements.
For immigrant-rights advocates and their Democratic allies in the Statehouse here, the bill’s passage was the latest in a string of hard-won victories involving proposals that once seemed more symbolic than practical.
Emboldened this year by a majority in both legislative chambers, and buoyed by an influx of young Latino lawmakers, Democrats pushed legislation granting in-state tuition rates to students who are in the country illegally. And they overturned a 2006 law requiring the police to notify federal authorities of people suspected of being in the United States illegally.
For years, immigrant-rights advocates had viewed Colorado as a place with especially tough, intractable immigration laws. But the passage of the three measures, during a legislative session dominated by issues like guns and marijuana, marked distinct shifts in opinion in a swing state where Latinos are increasingly powerful.
“We’ve really seen the political landscape change here,” said State Senator Jessie Ulibarri, a freshman lawmaker from Commerce City and sponsor of the driver’s license legislation. “On issues like driver’s licenses, we now have a record number of Latinos and Latinas in the state legislature who are able to talk about the public safety benefits and long-term benefits for Colorado.”
Beyond the increase in Latino legislators — there are now 12 — political experts said the shift showed some other factors at work.
“In some ways, it has been the perfect storm,” said Robert Preuhs, an assistant professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who also is a consultant for a Latino polling firm. “What we’re looking at here is a heightened Democratic responsiveness to Latinos in Colorado, to whom they really owe their majority in both chambers.”
“There are also now Republicans from close districts, in unsafe seats, who are responding to Latino pressure,” he said.
A telling example of the changing tenor was the passage of the in-state tuition bill, whose consistent defeat over the last decade had become emblematic of the frustration felt by Colorado immigrant-rights groups.
The legislation passed this year with full support from Democrats, who had not always been unified. And it also received some Republican backing, most notably from State Senator Greg Brophy, an outspoken conservative from rural Wray and a longtime opponent.
In a lengthy posting on his Facebook page, Mr. Brophy explained his change of heart, saying that children who are not here legally still had the right to an education.
“They can’t go home,” he wrote. “They are home. Looking at the kids in any classroom in Eastern Colorado, you can’t tell who is an American and who is an illegal alien. They all look the same; they are the same.”
Support from Colorado’s police chiefs and sheriffs was instrumental in overturning the 2006 law requiring local law enforcement officials to inform federal authorities of immigrants suspected of being here illegally. That bill was passed under a Democratic-controlled legislature and was seen by opponents as having laid the groundwork for immigration measures in Arizona and Alabama.
Law enforcement groups also publicly backed the driver’s license bill, though the legislation did not garner any support from Republicans. Under the bill, the licenses will be marked to prevent them from being used for federal identification or to vote.
Currently, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington allow immigrants in the country illegally to apply for licenses, while Utah issues a special driving card. Oregon and Maryland recently passed driver’s license measures, and several other states are weighing the matter.
A spokesman for Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said the governor would review the bill’s language. Supporters remained optimistic that he would sign it.
Lisa Duran, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Rights For All People, and a board member of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, recalled first trying to pass a driver’s license bill in Colorado shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and being met with bitter opposition.
Years of grass-roots organizing and forging alliances with an array of groups, she said, helped soften that resistance.
“We’ve been looking at each other and saying, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore,’ ” Ms. Duran said. “We were very hopeful. But I’ve been on the losing end so many times here. We have had to work, and not just hope.”