Polis signing bill to expand driver's license program for undocumented residents

Gov. Jared Polis, surrounded by backers of Senate Bill 139, including bill sponsors Rep. Jonathan Singer of Longmont and Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City.

Gov. Jared Polis signed bills Tuesday that will change the legal landscape for undocumented Colorado residents.

Senate Bill 139 creates more offices to provide driver’s license applications to such migrants. It was signed during a Commerce City ceremony.

The measure won bipartisan support from the General Assembly, including by rural Republicans concerned about their agricultural leaders, who say having driver’s licenses is a public safety issue for their employees.

Even Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, voted in favor as a way to track where undocumented residents live.

The program has been a victim of its success since it passed in 2013. People waited months, even a year, to get an appointment at one of the three offices offering first-time licenses. That led to abuses, as brokers obtained and then sold the appointments, often for $100 or more.

The current offices are in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Lakewood; a fourth, in Aurora, handles only renewals.

Under SB 139, the program will add immigrant licenses to Division of Motor Vehicle offices in Pueblo, Alamosa, Glenwood Springs, Lamar and Montrose this year and in Sterling in 2020.

Those six offices comprise only “a floor,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, one of the bill’s sponsors. The bill calls for at least 10, and as more need arises elsewhere, more offices can be added, Singer said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, lauded the work of former Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, who sponsored the 2013 bill, and of Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, another early proponent.

“Because of partisanship,” the program “was crippled” in its early years, Moreno said. That’s a nod to conservative Republicans who insisted on capping the number of licenses at 166,000, a number the state estimated it will reach in June.

“People should be able to drive to work or drive their kids to school,” Moreno said.

Polis also signed into law House Bill 1124, clarifying that federal agents cannot use local jails to hold suspected undocumented residents longer than their local sentence requires.

The bill was watered down in the House to satisfy concerns Polis raised. As introduced, it had prohibited jail staff from talking to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. As amended, it lets jail employees notify ICE when an undocumented inmate is to be released.

Immigration attorneys such as Hans Meyer of Denver testified in favor of the measure in a House committee hearing.

The law “will prevent deceptive and illegal ICE enforcement tactics while restoring the trust of victims and immigrant communities in local law enforcement and our state court systems,” Meyer said in a statement Tuesday.

It will “protect sensitive personal information so that ICE cannot manipulate the rehabilitative process of probation to advance its deportation agenda. It also clarifies that state law does not provide authority for local sheriffs to hold immigrants based on a civil immigration detainer, which will restore due process in our court system, promote trust in local law enforcement by victims of crime, and deter bias based policing.”

Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, said HB 1124 will make immigrants feel safer. The law, which takes effect Aug. 2, ensures that Colorado jails will not honor ICE requests to turn over those in custody, she said. If ICE wants to talk with them, the suspects will be advised of their rights, including that they don’t have to talk to ICE.

The law also will block probation officers from providing their clients’ personal information to ICE. And it will make it more difficult for law enforcement to enter into contracts with ICE.

“It’s not a perfect bill,” Benavidez said. But it’s a good first step, said Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver.

ICE no longer can issue an order — or “permission slip” — to take custody of a jailed immigrant, noted Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette.

Three other signing ceremonies were held Tuesday, as Polis signed three dozen bills, including two “ban the box” measures that prohibit employers and public colleges and universities from asking about a person’s criminal history on a job or college application (House Bill 1025 and Senate Bill 170, respectively).

Polis also signed House Bill 1210, which lets local governments in expensive areas set their own minimum wage.

The governor has until Saturday to sign into law or veto any bills sent to him by the General Assembly. He has signing ceremonies scheduled every day this week. Wednesday, he’s expected to sign measures dealing with marijuana.

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