For Colorado's Undocumented, The Wait At The DMV Just Got Longer

Originally published on February 17, 2015 11:23 am

Aleida Ramirez is proud of her old driver's license. It's faded and battered, held together by tape in two places, and it expired two years ago.

But Ramirez wouldn't think of throwing it out.

"Because it's my treasure," Ramirez says. "I mean, this is the only proof that I've been living in this state. This is the only proof that I have that I've been working hard, that I want to be here."

Ramirez has lived illegally in the United States for 25 years. She got her license before Sept. 11, when laws around driver's licenses were more lax. Though she can't drive legally now, she is still on the road.

"I don't know what is going to happen if I get involved in accident, or if I get stopped by police," she says. "I just try to be really, really careful."

Two years ago, Democrats in Colorado's state Legislature voted to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses again. When the program went into effect in July, the state became the 10th in the country to license undocumented immigrants.

Demand has been strong, with long waits for DMV appointments. Ramirez hasn't been able to get one yet — and now she has to wait even longer: Republican state lawmakers have blocked funding for the program.

"We don't condone the activity," says Sen. Kevin Grantham. "We don't condone the policy. How can we condone the funding of it?"

Grantham says giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants sends the wrong message.

"We have essentially, through the legislation originally in 2013, authorized a state agency to condone and license an illegal activity, which is being in this country illegally," he says.

Republicans won control of Colorado's Senate in November. With Democrats still holding the House, conservatives don't have the votes to repeal the driver's license policy outright. But they do have enough seats on the budget committee to deadlock spending bills.

Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the original sponsor of the driver's license bill, describes Republicans' tactics with the worst insult possible in state politics: He compares them to Congress.

"We know that in Washington, D.C., the Republicans there can't pass a bill through the Senate or the House, so they tack things onto the budget," Ulibarri says. "I think Colorado voters want a better process in our state capitol than we witness in Washington, D.C."

Starting Monday, any undocumented immigrant in Colorado who wants a driver's license will have to take the driving test at a crowded DMV office on Denver's southwest side — the only one still offering the licenses.

Slots for 2015 are all already full, and the DMV is telling people who don't have appointments, like Ramirez, to check back next January.

Ramirez sees renewing her license as one more way to show that she knows how to play by U.S. rules.

"Even though I'm not legal in the country, I'm responsible," she says. "I know I have to be responsible."

While she waits for her shot at a license, Ramirez is starting work on another angle to get right on the roads: Her adult children are sponsoring her for a green card.

Copyright 2015 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Last year, Colorado became the 10th state in the country to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. But immigrants seeking those licenses could be waiting years for their day at the DMV. That's because Republicans in the state legislature have found a way to nearly shut the program down. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.

MEGAN VERLEE: The first thing Aleida Ramirez wanted to show me when I came to interview her was her old driver's license. It's faded and battered, held together by tape in two places, and it expired two years ago. But Ramirez wouldn't think of throwing it out.

ALEIDA RAMIREZ: I don't know. This is kind of strange, having this document that doesn't work anymore. But it used to be mine and...

VERLEE: Why do you keep it?

RAMIREZ: Because it's my treasure. I mean, this is the only proof that I have that I've been living in this state. This is the only proof that I have that I've been working hard, that I want to be here.

VERLEE: Ramirez has lived illegally in the United States for 25 years. She got her license before Sept. 11, when laws around driver's licenses were more lax. And even though she can't drive legally now, she is still on the road.

RAMIREZ: I don't know what is going to happen if, you know, I get involved in accident, or if I get stopped for a police. I don't know. I just try to be really, really careful.

VERLEE: Two years ago, Democrats in Colorado's state legislature voted to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses again. The program went into effect last July, and demand has been strong, with long waits for DMV appointments. Ramirez hasn't been able to get one yet. And she's going to be waiting a lot longer. That's because Republican state lawmakers are blocking funding for the program.

KEVIN GRANTHAM: We don't condone the activity. We don't condone the policy. How can we condone the funding of it?

VERLEE: Republican State Sen. Kevin Grantham says giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants sends the wrong message.

GRANTHAM: We have essentially, through the legislation originally in 2013, authorized a state agency to condone and license an illegal activity, which is being in this country illegally.

VERLEE: Republicans won control of Colorado's Senate in November. With Democrats still holding the House, conservatives don't have the votes to repeal the driver's license policy outright. But they do have enough seats on the budget committee to deadlock spending bills.

Democratic State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the original sponsor of the driver's license bill, describes Republicans' tactics with the worst insult possible in state politics. He compares them to Congress.

JESSIE ULIBARRI: We know that in Washington, D.C., the Republicans there can't pass a bill through the Senate or the House, so they tack on things onto the budget. And I think Colorado voters want a better process in our state capitol than we witness in Washington, D.C.

VERLEE: Starting Monday, any undocumented immigrant in Colorado who wants a driver's license will have to take the driver test here, at a crowded DMV office on Denver's southwest side. It's the only one still offering the licenses.

This year's slots are all already full, and the DMV is telling people who don't have appointments to check back next January. That includes Aleida Ramirez, the Denver mother driving on an expired license. She sees renewing her license as one more way to show that she knows how to play by the rules.

RAMIREZ: Even though I'm not legal in the country, I'm responsible. I know I have to be responsible.

VERLEE: And while she waits for her shot at a license, Ramirez is starting to work on another angle to get right on the roads. Her adult children are sponsoring her for citizenship [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story and an earlier Web version, we say that the adult children of Aleida Ramirez are sponsoring her for citizenship. In fact, they are sponsoring her for a green card]. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.