Crash brings national issue into focus |

Crash brings national issue into focus

Brandon Gee
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.
Brian Ray

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


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