Colorado, like all but eight U.S. states, requires proof of legal residence to obtain a driver's license. After a recent fatal crash near Milner, whether undocumented immigrants should be legally allowed to drive is a national question with local weight.

Photo by Brian Ray

Colorado, like all but eight U.S. states, requires proof of legal residence to obtain a driver's license. After a recent fatal crash near Milner, whether undocumented immigrants should be legally allowed to drive is a national question with local weight.

Crash brings national issue into focus

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If you go

What: Open Mic Night in benefit of Russ Blackhurst

When: 7 p.m. on Dec. 20

Where: Olympian Hall at Howelsen Hill

Cost: $10 donation recommended

Contact: Call Joe Carberry at 819-2118 for more information

— On the morning of Nov. 26, Russ Blackhurst of Steamboat Springs - a 30-year-old recent dental school graduate practicing in Craig - suffered serious injuries in a car crash near Milner.

The crash occurred when Teodora Diaz Simon, of Craig, spun out while exiting a turn on a snowy U.S. Highway 40 and skidded into Blackhurst in the oncoming lane. Diaz was killed in the accident. Police said Diaz's speed and lack of adequate winter tires played a role in the crash.

Diaz was driving without a driver's license or insurance, according to an accident report from the Colorado State Patrol. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there is no record of Diaz's lawful residence in the United States. The car she was driving belongs to a Gunnison woman. Diaz's body is being repatriated to her hometown in the Mexican state of Nayarit, officials with the Mexican consulate in Denver said.

Those close to Blackhurst say he is unconcerned with Diaz's legal status and only mourns her loss. But the accident brings home a debate that is raging at the national level: whether immigrants, regardless of their legal status, should be allowed to obtain a driver's license.

"Russ Blackhurst is a super-humble human being and I know he doesn't want to be a political fire starter," said Joe Carberry, Blackhurst's brother-in-law. "He was absolutely devastated by the death of that woman. I mean devastated. We all were."

Citing their distress since the accident, Blackhurst and his wife declined to comment for this story. Blackhurst's mother-in-law, Charmel Kubik of Boise, Idaho, said she is upset at what the family has been put through, and angry about the circumstances that led to it.

"Russ was injured pretty bad, and he's got a long way to go," Kubik said. "I feel really sorry for (Diaz), I really do. But in the same sense, I'm very angry at what she's put our family through."

Local, national

Those in favor of granting driver's licenses regardless of legal status cite public safety concerns. They say America's 12 million undocumented immigrants will drive with or without a license, so it's better to have them tested and insured. Unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers with a valid license, according to a report prepared for the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety.

Opponents say granting licenses to illegal immigrants will encourage more to enter the country. They also say the idea raises security concerns, such as the fact that driver's licenses can be used to board commercial flights. Or more simply, as Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said in a recent presidential debate, "A license is a privilege."

In the accelerating race to the White House, Democratic contenders are generally united on the need for reformed immigration laws, but divided on the driver's license issue. Republican candidates, in general, have focused on stepping up enforcement rather than reform.

Colorado, like all but eight U.S. states, requires proof of legal residence to obtain a driver's license. State officials don't expect that to change anytime soon.

State Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, said there is no movement in the state Legislature to change current driver's license policy.

"Absolutely not," White said. "I don't see it happening."

Former Steamboat Springs City Councilman Ken Brenner - who will challenge White in the election next year to replace state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs - said proponents for allowing licenses regardless of legal status have "a valid point," but agreed that the chances of change in Colorado are slim.

"There's no way you're going to see that change," said Brenner, a Democrat.

As Brenner and White suggest, granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants poses a great political hurdle. This was evidenced recently in the state of New York, where Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced licenses would be issued without regard to immigration status.

But under intense political pressure - highlighted by presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's, D-N.Y., seeming support of the plan, followed by her stated opposition to it - Spitzer withdrew his plan.

Julien Ross, director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the situation in New York underscores how an unreasonable political debate is hindering wise public policy.

"The governor in New York tried to show leadership - tried to do the right thing," Ross said. "It's really tragic that the wave of opposition to that led him to remove that executive order."

Ross said the issue is one of both public safety and human rights. It is a human rights issue, he said, because people in the U.S. need to be able to drive - to work, the grocery store, day care, etc. - to maintain an acceptable quality of life. In the absence of the comprehensive immigration reform Democrats are calling for, Ross said the driver's license issue should be separated from the larger immigration issue.

"We believe that any driver of age and ability should be allowed to obtain a driver's license in Colorado or any state in the U.S.," Ross said. "Immigration status should not be a factor in getting a driver's license until we reform our immigration laws. It's absurd to deny capable and responsible drivers of a driver's license when there's no way for them to become legal residents."

The local view

Between Jan. 1, 2005, and Nov. 30, 2007, 223 drivers were cited for driving without a valid driver's license in Steamboat Springs, Steamboat Springs Police Department Capt. Joel Rae said.

Rae described the data regarding immigration status as "sporadic," and said drivers often produce a foreign driver's license that Steamboat police have no way of verifying. In those cases, the driver is not cited for failing to produce a valid license.

Routt County Sheriff's Office Investigator Ken Klinger said illegal drivers are involved "in excess of 20 percent" of the traffic incidents in the county.

"You deal with everything from no insurance to fake driver's licenses," Klinger said. "There's an awful lot of them running around."

Figuring out if a person is an illegal immigrant is on the roads is not as simple as pulling them over and basing judgments off looks, said Tim Jantz, Moffat County sheriff.

"We can't profile," he said. "I can't ask them if they're illegal ... If I have probable cause to make the stop, I can ask investigatory questions."

From a public safety standpoint, Rae said he is in favor of granting driver's licenses in spite of legal resident status.

"It's a hot topic in America," Rae said. "Knowing who these people are, regardless of their legal status, is very important. It's something we do need to get a hold of."

Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall, like Rae, noted the potential benefits and the political sensitivity.

"Just because they don't have a license, doesn't mean they aren't going to drive," Wall said. "The issue, of course, becomes do we want to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses? That's a political question that I don't want to get into. Would it be better? Yes. Is that the correct political decision to make? I don't know, and I don't want to comment on that."

Klinger is against the idea. When other people have gone through the trouble to reside in the U.S. legally and obtain driver's licenses as legal residents, Klinger said, it would be unfair to grant licenses to illegal immigrants.

"Illegal, to me personally, means illegal," Klinger said. "They shouldn't be granted the privilege."

While the national and local debate carries on about how laws may change in the future, Charmel Kubik just wishes the present ones had been followed Nov. 26, believing her son-in-law might have escaped a traumatic experience.

"I am sure that (Diaz) did not purposely plan to have a wreck that would take her life and seriously injure Russ," Kubik said. "However, I do feel that if she did not have a license and insurance, she should not have been on the road. This also goes for any other person that is out there driving, no matter what their nationality is, and whether they are a legal citizen or an illegal citizen. I hope that no one else will ever have to go through what Russ and his family have had to go through."

- To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210

or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com

Comments

hondojim 7 years ago

Don't people get it yet? Illegal immigrants are law breakers. Do people actually think that if it was ok for them to get a drivers license that they wouldn't drive if they failed to pass the test? Do people actualy think that illegals will bother taking a test to get a drivers license when it exposes them to being identified and having their addresses known? Illegal immigration is a problem and the sooner we send them all back to where they came from the sooner things like this will not be open to debate,

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grannyrett 7 years ago

nikobesti-and others-Until it is legal for people to just walk over the borders and need no papers, the instant someone steps foot on this side of the border, they are breaking the law. If they were given licenses, and they were stopped, they would have to be arrested. How many of them do you think are going to get a drivers license, when it lists their home address, and will not do anything to stop them from being deported. It is the duty of law enforcement to enforce all laws. Not just the ones they want to. If we condone an illegal alien getting a legal license, does that make any sense? We, as American citizens, do not get to pick which laws we will obey. We cannot in a court of law announce to judge and jury that we just didn't feel like obeying a law, so we should be let go. That's what you are asking us to do when it comes to illegals in this country. Maybe the law needs changed to let more workers into this country, but until that happens, they are breaking the law. Is it okay for them to break that law and then punish an American citizen for going 90 mph in a 30 zone? Why have any laws? Why not just let everyone do what they want? Would sure cut down on the need for law enforcement! Just look at all the money we could save. It would lower all our taxes, wouldn't it. But that is not a country anyone of us would like to live in. We need laws-but we need to enforce all of them. If you don't like the current laws we have re: immigration, then do something to help change them, but don't expect the rest of us to condone anyone breaking any law.

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grannyrett 7 years ago

Momofthree-This country does belong to us. As members of the United States of America, this is OUR country. We take a lot of pride in being able to say this is OUR country. We know it isn't perfect, but that is why we work to make it a better country. We welcome immigrants who want to come and join us. We hope those who come here will prosper, gain American citizenship and join us is loving OUR country. We will fight for OUR country, bleed for Our country, and die for OUR country. We are AMERICANS.

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grannyrett 7 years ago

What's the problem with letting anyone who wants to come here in? Because we are a nation right now that is trying to protect itself. We should open the doors to killers, those with violent records, those who wish to distroy this country? We should just invite Osama to come in and bring all those who believe like him? We have a nation with enough criminals and we want to invite more? We are a nation founded on rules. I hope you follow those rules since you live here. If you want those rules changed, we have a government of the people that can change those rules. Are you working to get it done? Right now our borders are so porous that an estimated 500,000 cross illegally just on our southern border a year. When the governor of New York said he was going to change it so illegals could get drivers licences, the people spoke, and it didn't take him long to back down. Do you think the sentiment is different here? Have you ever been to the border? Have you read of the atrocities that are committed down there? Have you seen the fear in the eyes of landowners that live close to the border? Have you seen the rented homes with plywood over the windows and locked doors where coyotes imprison, rape and kill the people who come over the borders illegally? Do you have any idea what border control means? Do you think that it's just Mexicans or those from Central America or South America are the only ones coming over the southern border? 87% of them are. Where are the other 13% coming from? Do you know? Does anyone? If you wanted to get into this country to do it harm, do you think you could get in any other way than illegally? How easy would it be for a terrorist to get into this country? Do you think that after 9-11 they are just going to stop? Do you think they don't know how easy it is to cross our borders-North and South? Wake up!

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RuthTaylor 7 years ago

Does possession of a driver's license make one a better driver? Does having insurance? If a person has broken the law to enter or remain in the U.S., is that person likely to pay the DMV to take a driver's test? Failing a test, will the person refrain from driving? Does that person's conscience push him/her to purchase insurance for hundreds of dollars a year? The person, after much time, may wish to have documents "validating" their presence. Those documents may be useful in the event of a general amnesty or if asked for identification at places of business. What if the person uses a false name or an incomplete one? Hispanics frequently have several names. A driver's license solves nothing. Illegal is illegal.

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grannyrett 7 years ago

Who's social security number are they paying taxes with? Do you know the problems that can cause someone who is retired and can only earn so much per year before they start deducting it from their checks? Do you know what will happen if someone is on disability and their social security number shows earnings. What happens if someone is put in a different tax bracket and has to pay more in taxes because not enough was held out? This only means they are guilty of identity theft too. Where does it stop? If they are illegal and paying taxes, it just goes on and on. It does not change the fact that they are illegal.

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taxslave 7 years ago

Listen up everyone. There is only one way to even start to resolve this issue and that is to vote! If they are in office, vote them out. Flip this congress upside down. They represent the interest of big business, not the people.

The influx of immigrants is due to our inability to negotiate decent trade deals....NAFTA, CAFTA, NAU, PERU, COLUMBIA, CHINA, VIET NAM, AFRICA, INDIA, on and on, u name it.

Not one of these trade deals is written with the interest of the American in mind. If there is, it's not enforced, i.e., inspections @ borders stopped by biggest lobbyist in D.C., Walmart. The law of marking "country of origin" labels was mandated by our congress almost 10 years ago....Walmart, the largest importer of Chineese goods in the wolrd, keeps it blocked with "corporate dollars"....call Joe Biden and ask him.

We've got two choices to stop this mess and turn it around, Dennis K or Mike Gravel, democrates, or Ron Paul, Republican......pick your weapon, get informed and vote.

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