Driver’s licenses

Unless and until the United States can decide as a nation what to do about immigration and the millions of undocumented immigrants already living among us, it is left to state and local governments to handle the situation as best they can. The Colorado Road and Community Safety Act is one such effort.

That law allows undocumented Colorado residents to get state-issued driver’s licenses or identification cards with specific conditions. To be effective, however, the acts’ provisions need to be available to those undocumented immigrants. And that is not the case when only five Division of Motor Vehicles offices – out of 37 statewide – can issue such licenses.

That needs to be fixed. To pass this law and then fail to implement it properly would be unfair to all concerned – taxpayers, other motorists, state DMV workers and the immigrants themselves.

The Colorado Road and Community Safety Act was passed last year as Senate Bill 251 and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper last June. It takes effect Aug. 1.

It reinstates a Colorado immigrant’s right to get a Colorado driver’s license or identification card. Undocumented immigrants had that ability before being barred from obtaining driver’s licenses in 1999.

To get a license, applicants will have to prove payment of taxes and produce identification from their country of origin. They must also prove Colorado residency and provide an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which the IRS offers precisely so immigrants in the country illegally can pay taxes. And they must promise to work to get legal immigrant status.

All this was enacted in the name of safety and public order, for the immigrants, for the police and courts and for the rest of us. The idea is that drivers with some training and knowledge of the rules will be safer. A California study done in 2012 found unlicensed drivers three times as likely to cause fatal crashes.

With licenses, otherwise-undocumented drivers also will be less likely to flee the scene of an accident. The courts should see fewer charges of driving without a license or insurance. And with fewer uninsured motorists on the roads, insurance rates may even go down.

Law enforcement could benefit as well. Police should be able to better identify people, and immigrants may be more likely to report crimes and testify.

The number of undocumented immigrants expected to try to get a Colorado driver’s license or ID card this year has been estimated at 45,000. One immigrant group has said the number could be as high as 60,000.

But with only five DMV offices participating – one in Grand Junction and four along the Front Range – the system is already swamped. Applicants need to make an appointment, and the Grand Junction office is booked through October.

The merits and efficacy of the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act can of course be debated – as they were last year in the Legislature. But it is not now a proposal, a trial or an experiment. It is the law. And if the benefits its supporters promised are to be realized, it needs to be fully implemented statewide.

As things stand now, if undocumented immigrants living in Southwest Colorado want to do the right thing and get legitimate driver’s licenses when the law goes into effect, they will have to go to Grand Junction or the Front Range. It seems counterproductive to expect them to drive.

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