Amid national debate, Colorado issues driver's licenses to illegal immigrants

The Colorado move on driver's licenses prompted criticism from conservatives, who say it's an incentive to break immigration laws. Immigration advocates, in response, say it's a sign of a softening national stance toward illegal immigrants.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Adriana Gaytan, who came to Colorado in 1997 from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, second from left, sits at home with her children who were born in the US – from left to right, Osbaldo, 11; Oscar, 13; and Indhira, 14 – as well as their dog Kissy, in Aurora, Colo., Thursday, July 31, 2014.

In what’s become something of a national trend, Colorado began issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants on Friday.

State and national conservatives have already lambasted the plan, saying it will encourage more illegal immigration and intensify the wave of Central American migrants flooding across the Rio Grande into Texas. But the plan’s advocates say it’s both a necessary measure to improve traffic safety and a sign of a sea change in the way Americans view the immigrant community.

According to state authorities, demand for the new licenses has been extreme so far, and the website hosting the online application has already crashed once. More than 9,500 people have scheduled appointments at branches of the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles, officials say, and more continue to sign up.

The appeal for illegal immigrants lies in the fact that they can now avoid being cited for driving without a license, and they say they’ll have less fear of being treated with suspicion by state and local authorities.

“It’s going to help us so that, for example, we’re not put in the hands of immigration officials,” Adriana Gaytan, an undocumented resident of Aurora, Colo., told The Associated Press. “I think it’s going to give us a valid identification to show police.”

For many Colorado Republicans, however, giving undocumented immigrants “valid identification” is merely an incentive to break immigration laws – a sentiment that mirrors that of many Republicans in the US House, where an attempt to pass immigration reform legislation was scuttled on Thursday after protest from the party’s conservative flank.

“You reward illegal behavior, you beget more illegal behavior,” state Sen. Ted Harvey (R) said.

Colorado's plan for driver's licenses also drew fire from NumbersUSA, a national group supporting reduced immigration numbers. Its CEO, Roy Beck, held the state “partly responsible” for the recent immigration surge in an interview with Politico.

But many supporters say that the Colorado plan, which will subject illegal immigrants to driving tests, is merely an attempt to make the state’s roads safer. Among the supporters, they note, is the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

Another, overlapping segment of the supporters says the bill is largely a response to Washington’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which they believe to be the root of the current crisis.

“Ignoring the reality that we are working with a completely broken immigration system does us no good,” state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri (D) told Politico. “Because of their inaction, we are stuck with a patchwork of state laws.”

Colorado is just the latest state to grant illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. Ten other states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington – as well as the District of Columbia have no requirements regarding immigration status when obtaining the ID. Eight of those states jettisoned their immigration-based restrictions on driver’s licenses last year. According to data from the National Immigration Law Center, 10 more states are considering legislation to give illegal immigrants access to driver’s licenses.

Pro-immigrant groups say the trend marks a softening of policy nationwide toward illegal immigrants.

“I can definitely see some of the more populated immigrant communities trying to do this,” Denise Maes, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, told Politico.

They also note that immigration advocacy groups have been putting more and more money into state-level organizing, as the possibility of federal immigration reform this year grows increasingly remote.

That’s not to say that the news has been all rosy as of late for state-level pro-immigrant advocates. Just this June, the consistently liberal Massachusetts legislature rejected a measure almost identical to that of Colorado's. Also, recent polls have indicated that the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has subtly decreased public support for granting illegal immigrants citizenship.

 This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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