Danny Quinlan, executive director of Compañeros, a nonprofit and immigrant resource center serving the Four Corners, assists someone at the Compañeros' office last Thursday./Photo by Jennaye Derge

In the driver’s seat

Local nonprofit assists immigrants with new driver’s license program

by Tracy Chamberlin

Once a month, Danny Quinlan fills up the tank in a passenger van and hits the road, taking a four-hour trek over Red Mountain Pass and into the high desert country of Grand Junction. It’s not for a weekend getaway or professional conference. He’s headed to the DMV.

While most Durangoans can go to Bodo Park, some locals can only get their license at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Grand Junction.

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Under the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act, passed in 2013 as Senate Bill 251, residents of Colorado can now apply for a driver’s license, regardless of their immigration status. The application process has three main steps and, unless applicants can prove temporary lawful presence in the United States, such as a work visa, it can only be completed in person.

Quinlan must make the trek over the mountains because, so far, the DMV has only trained staff at five offices in the state to issue these particular licenses.

With four sitting along the I-25 corridor of the Front Range (Fort Collins, Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs), Grand Junction is the only one west of the Continental Divide and the closest option for those living on the West Slope.

Since the program began July 1, about 35,000 people have attempted to make an appointment to get their licenses. There are anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Coloradoans eligible, Quinlan said. “It’s a difficult number to pin down.”

This program could change all that by offering an accurate database of where immigrants are living and working in the Centennial state.

Quinlan, executive director for Compañeros, a nonprofit and immigrant resource center serving the Four Corners, said the program is a huge victory for the immigrant community, but the top reason he wants it is safety.

Someone with a valid driver’s license, he added, is more likely to have the vehicle properly registered and insured, know the specifics of state driving laws, and in the event of an accident, anyone injured could be identified and family members contacted.

This is something that local law enforcement also acknowledges as a benefit.

“We see it as a positive move for making the roads safer,” said Captain Dan Shry, Operations Division Commander for the Durango Police Department.

Shry, who sat down with Quinlan and discussed the issue, said when officers see one of the driver’s licenses issued through this program, it tells them the individual has been through the process. They’ve proven state residency. They’ve paid taxes. They’ve passed the written exam and the driving test; and, the officer knows it’s a valid driver’s license, making it more likely the vehicle is properly registered and insured.

Shry called the current roll out to only five DMV offices a test for the state. “I think with some time and some success, they’ll roll it out to some other offices,” he added.

The licenses available through the program feature a thick, black stripe across the top clearly stating “Not valid for federal identification, voting or public benefit purposes.”

Although, it is easily identifiable, the black stripe does not define legal status in the United States. The same stripe appears on the licenses of individuals who can prove they have temporary legal status, like a work visa. So, having this type of ID doesn’t mean an individual is or is not legally residing in the country.

“What this program shows is that people are paying taxes and are willing to comply,” Quinlan explained. “Anytime we make the law accessible, they’ll comply with it.”

For a driver’s license issued through the program, an individual pays $50.50, compared to the average $21 fee for legal residents. Quinlan said it makes sense to him why it costs more, with the additional training required for DMV employees who process the IDs.

Sarah Werner, Communications Specialist with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, said when the act was passed, it was intended to be self-funded.

“The program is funded by the additional fee that successful applicants pay for a driver license, instruction permit or identification card issued under this act … funding includes the five offices and staff who are specially trained to work on this program,” Werner explained.

In order to get a license, applicants must first prove they are eligible by showing they pay federal and state taxes, via the I-10 form. They must prove residency in the state for at least two years; and, they must produce a valid ID from their home country.

Quinlan said he’s seen a number of issues during this part of the process.

One individual brought insurance papers to prove his Colorado residency. The document listed his monthly payment, showed his Colorado address, and proved he’d been paying that company for several years.

However, at the bottom of the document, it read “page 1 of 4.” The other pages had no information that would prove his status, but they still needed to be produced.

The only way to get a driver’s license was to make another appointment and another trek over the mountains with all four pages in hand. “That kind of threw us for a loop,” Quinlan said.

The second step to getting the license is passing a written exam, which is provided in either English or Spanish.

The challenge here, Quinlan explained, is that some of the vocabulary used in the Spanish version is translated into a dialect spoken in Spain, not Latin America. This can make some of the questions, and answers, confusing.

Once that step is complete, it’s time to actually get behind the wheel.

Some of the people Quinlan’s taken to Grand Junction were given learner’s permits because they passed the written exam but not the driving test. Like anyone else, bad habits can keep an applicant from passing the first time out.

So far, about 20 of the people Quinlan’s taken to Grand Junction have received a driver’s license and almost double that have identification cards. A handful were able to qualify for learner’s permits.

Quinlan said he does see improvements to the process each time, and he knows what to expect. But it could also be much easier.

Werner said the state does continue to evaluate the program and plans to use statistical data to make any changes.

In the end, Quinlan said it’s exciting to see someone get their license. In fact, most can’t wait to get carded, just so they can show it off.

After the first of the year, Quinlan plans to gas up the 15-passenger van and head back to Grand Junction for another day of appointments. “This is an incredibly valuable program,” he said. “It benefits the entire state.”


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