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Driving for Licenses

Immigrant-rights groups hope to build on failed initiative


Eric Popkin, a member of Latinos Unidos and an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College. - SHERRI VANENGELEN
  • Sherri VanEngelen
  • Eric Popkin, a member of Latinos Unidos and an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College.

When the Amistad Immigrant Rights Coalition asked undocumented immigrants what their most pressing concern was last summer, many gave the same answer: their inability to get Colorado driver's licenses.

Licenses, they said, would enable them to drive legally to and from jobs -- including those that would otherwise go unfilled. Recognizing they drive anyway -- and that not giving them licenses often compromises the public's safety and clogs the courts -- the Boulder-based coalition began an organized effort to address the problem.

Along the way, the group gained allies in Colorado Springs including El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson and Latinos Unidos, a local immigrant-rights group. It also won support from Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, who introduced a bill in the state Legislature to let undocumented immigrants obtain driver's licenses. Similar laws already exist in Utah, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

The effort ultimately failed, when a Senate committee defeated Tupa's bill on a 4-3 vote earlier this month. Among those opposing the measure was Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs.

Still, the groups behind the effort say the cloud has a silver lining: As a result of organizing around the bill, previously insular immigrant-rights groups throughout the state connected with each other and identified common agendas. On Monday, the various groups met in Denver as the first step toward forming a statewide coalition, which they hope will give them increased clout.

"It's preliminary discussions at this point," said Eric Popkin, a member of Latinos Unidos and an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College, who attended the meeting. However, he added, "I think that this is going to build."

The issue that galvanized the groups continues to be important to illegal immigrants, whose numbers in Colorado are thought to be somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000, Popkin said.

Studies have underscored the importance of undocumented workers to the U.S. and Colorado economies, especially to the agricultural and service sectors. Despite this dependence on their labor, Colorado and most other states don't give undocumented workers the right to drive. But because most workers require transportation, they drive anyway, noted Anderson.

That creates public-safety concerns, according to Anderson, who was among several sheriffs supporting Tupa's bill. Unlicensed drivers haven't passed driving tests and may not be adequately familiar with the rules of the road. Moreover, unlicensed drivers can't get auto insurance, and more uninsured drivers means more risk and higher premiums for insured drivers.

Commander Ken Morris of the Sheriff's Department's Patrol Division said it's hard to tell how many undocumented immigrants are cited locally for driving without a license, because patrol officers have no way of checking on the immigration status of people they pull over. Enforcement of immigration laws falls exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which doesn't have the resources to go after traffic offenders, Morris said.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that undocumented immigrants who drive without licenses do create a burden on the justice system. Mina Anderson, an El Paso County court interpreter, said she sometimes deals with 20 to 30 cases of Spanish-speaking defendants who are charged with driving without a license or insurance in a single week.

Opponents of Tupa's bill argued that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, immigration laws should be stricter, not more permissive. Popkin, however, countered that giving immigrants driver's licenses would actually make it easier for the government to keep track of them.

To Popkin, what's most important is to recognize the role of immigrants in the economy and in the community. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos make up 11 percent of El Paso County residents. The true number of Latinos is probably higher, and many of them are undocumented, he said. "It's a fast-growing population."

As they continue to meet regularly, Latinos Unidos and its sister organizations across the state will work toward the overarching goal of enabling undocumented immigrants to live in "stable conditions," Popkin said. That could mean a campaign for amnesty, and probably a resurrection of the driver's-license bill during next year's legislative session.

"The issue," Popkin said, "is how to properly integrate these people, whose labor we depend on."

-- Terje Langeland

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