DENVER -- Colorado will begin issuing driver's licenses and identification cards to immigrants Friday regardless of their legal status, underscoring a sea change in a state that less than a decade ago passed strict immigration enforcement laws.
Now, thousands of immigrants are waiting to get cards they hope will add a degree of legitimacy to their residency in Colorado. About 9,500 people are signed up for appointments through the next 90 days to get the documents, with more getting scheduled every day. Both people in the country illegally and those who have temporary legal status will qualify.
The demand for the licenses and identification cards has been tremendous, with the state's website for appointments crashing at one point because of traffic, and immigrant advocates urging officials to add more locations where people can go. So far, appointments are being handled at only five locations- Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Grand Junction.
But it wasn't long ago that immigrants could only dream of walking into a department of motor vehicles office to get a license. In 2006, Democrats and Republicans in Colorado passed a package of laws cracking down on illegal immigration, including requiring law enforcement to notify federal authorities when they arrested someone suspected of living illegally in the U.S. That law has since been repealed.
Last year, Colorado was among eight states that passed laws allowing identification documents for people in the country illegally. Two of those states, Illinois and Nevada, have already started issuing the documents. California plans to start in January.
"The changes we've seen in Colorado are absolutely remarkable and really reflect a turning of the tide in the debate on what immigration means and how immigrants are viewed, not only in Colorado but in the country," said Hans Meyer, a Denver-based immigration attorney who was involved in crafting the new law.
Still, there are detractors who argue it will encourage illegal immigration.
"You reward illegal behavior, you beget more illegal behavior," said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.
Supporters of the law say it will lead to safer roads because drivers who get licenses will have a better understanding of the rules when they pass the required tests, and law enforcement will correctly identify people in traffic stops and accidents.
Colorado immigrants started making appointments to get licenses and identification cards July 1. But the rush has created frustration for those who have been unable to make an appointment, like Adriana Gaytan, 41. Gaytan, who lives in Aurora, came to Colorado in 1997 from the Mexican state of Zacatecas.
For Gaytan, having a license would bring peace of mind.
"It's going to help us so that, for example, we're not put in the hands of immigration officials, so police don't view us as if we were criminals," she said in an interview in Spanish. "I think it's going to give us a valid identification to show police."
Immigrants with temporary legal permits don't have to make appointments, only those in the country illegally. Those without legal status must show documents like a utility bill to prove they've lived in Colorado the previous two years, in addition to an identification number they've used to pay taxes. They must also show a passport or other identification from their home country.
Those with a temporary legal status must present the documents that prove that, as well as evidence that they're Colorado residents.
Driver's licenses will cost $50.50, higher than the $21 that legal residents pay. Identification cards will be $14, also higher than the $10.50 paid by everyone else. The new program will be supported by user fees.
The documents must be renewed every three years, and the cards will be marked to say they can't be used for voting or to obtain federal benefits.
In Oregon, one of the eight states that passed a driver's license legislation last year, opponents collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and ask voters in November whether it should be implemented.