DENVER - Colorado has started issuing driver's licenses and identification cards to immigrants regardless of their legal status, marking a dramatic change in a state that less than a decade ago passed strict immigration enforcement laws.
There was a festive mood at one Denver office issuing the documents Friday morning, as state Department of Revenue Director Barbara Brohl congratulated applicants once they had their cards approved.
"I never imagined that I would one day have a driver's license in my hands," Mexican immigrant Rosalva Mireles, 37, said in Spanish as she held a paper copy of her new license. The permanent card will be mailed.
She's one of thousands of immigrants hoping the identification cards 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 has been tremendous since immigrants started making appointments July 1, with the state's website for appointments crashing at one point because of the traffic. 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 those 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notify federal authorities when they arrested someone suspected of living illegally in the U.S. That law has since been repealed.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.
"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.
The law's detractors argue it will encourage illegal immigration.
"You reward illegal behavior, you beget more illegal behavior," said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.
Brohl called the law a matter of public safety.
"We really want to have anyone who's driving on the roads to have a valid license, because that means that they've passed the written test, they passed the driving test, and they have auto insurance, and that's really important," she said.
Although all drivers are required to be insured, the new law won't guarantee that immigrants will get insurance.
Supporters of the law also say it will help law enforcement correctly identify people in traffic stops and accidents. And immigrants have said it will help ease their fear of dealing with police.
Only those in the country illegally need to make appointments. They must present 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 of Colorado residency.
Only certain clerks were trained to issue the licenses and IDs, which will cost more than what legal residents pay.
The cards are marked to say they can't be used for voting or to obtain federal benefits.