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A sample of a Colorado driver's license for someone living in the country illegally. (Handout)

Colorado lawmakers this year are poised to drastically expand the state’s long-troubled driver’s license program for people living in the U.S. illegally, solving a fundamental problem with the initiative that has plagued its efficacy from day one.

Senate Bill 139, introduced on Tuesday, would require that at least 10 state Division of Motor Vehicles offices offer appointments for applicants seeking licenses. It also would require the state to make sure those locations are spread out across Colorado.

That’s a dramatic increase from the four offices — in Grand Junction, Lakewood, Aurora and Colorado Springs — where applicants can appear in person to apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. And it would mark the most significant improvements to the program since its rocky 2014 rollout.

“This is an issue that we’ve been working on for more than a decade now,” said Kyle Huelsman, political director at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “Passing the legislation in 2013 was a huge step forward. And realistically, since it’s been implemented in 2014, the program hasn’t really been available statewide and hasn’t been accessible to everyone in the state. I think this is a really critical step to being able to open up access.”

Immigrant advocacy groups say the measure’s passage is their top legislative priority in Colorado for 2019. Additionally, Gov. Jared Polis’ first budget request, in which he laid out his policy priorities, included increased funding for the program.

It’s a long time coming for a program that was universally opposed by Republicans when it was proposed, but has since drawn support from some rural GOP lawmakers who have changed their stance to an initiative providing licenses to people who are in the U.S. illegally.

State Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. (Handout)

“This was a completely partisan issue back in 2013,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who is among the lead sponsors on this year’s bill. “There were no Republican (lawmakers) who supported the program whatsoever. Now, that’s changed — and I think that’s laudable.”

Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, is also a lead sponsor on the bill. GOP Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling, and Larry Crowder, of Alamosa, have been supportive of expanding the program in the past and indicated support of this year’s effort.

Republican lawmakers who support the program cite the need for agricultural workers to be able to get to their jobs and operate machinery. In 2018, when Republicans controlled the state Senate, the first incremental improvements to the policy were passed, clearing up the requirements for applicants in terms of what documents they need to apply.

The main problem with the program has been a dearth of available appointments for the thousands of people who cannot prove legal residency but have passed written and driving exams in hopes of getting a license. Available slots fill up in a matter of minutes when they open up 90 days in advance, immigrant advocates say.

To get an idea of the supply versus demand: As of the end of last year there were 60,530 driver’s licenses, 10,333 instruction permits and 5,307 identification cards issued under the program to people living in the U.S. unlawfully. Pew Research estimates that there were 190,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Colorado in 2016.

The Colorado Senate chamber on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Also, since there are only four locations offering appointments — one of which is dedicated to handling renewals only — immigrants living in rural Colorado face hours-long drives to apply. The licenses are valid for only three years.

The combination of limited appointments and a scarcity of offices offering them has opened the door to crime (people selling appointments, which sometimes don’t exist) and increased anxiety (driving without a license can lead to deportation proceedings) for those seeking to apply.

Partisan gridlock surrounding the program meant improvements to access in past years weren’t possible. The program’s supporters feel that opening up 10 offices would meet the demand. The measure would mandate all of those offices be opened up by Jan. 31, 2020.

“This would really allow the program to operate a lot more efficiently,” Moreno said.

That’s not to say there isn’t still GOP opposition to the bill.

“If you’re here illegally, if you’re an illegal immigrant, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive. You shouldn’t be rewarded by a driver’s license,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and former Weld County sheriff. “I’m opposed to it and I’ll be voting ‘no’ again, especially the expansion of it.”

Cooke, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, rejects the idea that the program increases public safety by ensuring there are more insured drivers on the road. “I don’t see how it makes it any more safe,” he said. “… I think it just encourages people to come here illegally.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Applicants for the program pay more than citizens for a driver’s license in Colorado, providing enough money for self funding.

Todd Schulte, president of the Washington, D.C.-based immigration-advocacy organization, says it’s critically important that immigrants have access to a driver’s license because it can mean the difference between being deported and not. Being pulled over without a license or insurance can mean an immigrant lands on immigration agents’ radar.

“If you have a broken taillight, if a police officer thinks you rolled a stop sign, if you’re driving six over by accident — those aren’t good things, but I don’t think the American public, I don’t think people here in Colorado, believe that should be the sort of thing that leads to deportation,” Schulte said. “And that happens.”

While immigrants in Colorado technically do have the option to seek out a license even under the current system, the program’s hurdles make actually getting one exceptionally difficult.

“Colorado has the opportunity to make sure not just that people have a theoretical ability to do that, but they can actually get access to those driver’s licenses,” Schulte said. “It’s really hard to do right now.”

Senate Bill 139 was routed to the Senate Finance committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....