STANTON, California — Hundreds of people packed into state offices and waited in hours-long lines Friday as California began issuing driver’s licenses to the nation’s largest population of immigrants in the country illegally.
Braving near-freezing temperatures, immigrants donning scarves and gloves and poring over driver’s handbooks arrived at the newly-created Department of Motor Vehicles office in Stanton as early as 2 a.m. hoping to be among the first to obtain the long-sought permission to drive.
“This is a big opportunity for me,” said Sammy Moeung, 24, a Cambodian immigrant eager to avoid having to ride his bike to work at his brother’s doughnut shop. “Having this is moving a step forward in life, in California and the United States.”
The DMV expects 1.4 million people will seek a license in the first three years of a program aimed at boosting road safety and making immigrants’ lives easier.
California officials said about 9,500 people had appointments to apply for new licenses on Friday. Hundreds more lined up outside the only four DMV offices that accept walk-in applicants, including the packed office in the Orange County city of Stanton.
California is one of 10 states that now license immigrants in the country illegally to drive, though the new cards issued to immigrants will include a distinctive marking and are not considered a valid form of federal identification.
Immigrant advocates have cheered the licenses as a way to integrate immigrants who must drive to work and shuttle children to school. But critics have questioned state officials’ ability to verify the identity of foreign applicants, citing security concerns.
Celia Rayon, a 49-year-old warehouse worker from Anaheim, emerged smiling from the Stanton office clutching her newly-printed driving permit. For nearly two decades, the Mexican immigrant has refrained from driving, relying on rides from co-workers to get to her job.
“You can’t go out anywhere,” she said, adding she’d like to make a 40-hour trip to visit relatives in Georgia once she passes her road test. “Now we’re going to feel more secure.”
Law enforcement officials say the program will improve road safety because more drivers will be tested and insured and studies show unlicensed drivers are more likely to cause a fatal crash.
Applicants must submit proof of identity and state residency and pass a written test to get a driving permit. Those who don’t possess foreign government-issued identification on a list of approved documents can be interviewed by a DMV investigator to see if they qualify.
Immigrants must come back at a later date and pass a road test to get the license, which will be marked with the words “federal limits apply.” Those who have licenses from other states are not required to take the driving test again, DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said.
Jesus Moreno, 30, said he was relieved to have gotten his permit after paying hundreds of dollars in tickets for driving without a license and for having his car impounded. The Mexican immigrant said he applied as soon as he could because he needs to drive to his job installing vending machines.
“It’s not that I want to drive. It’s a necessity,” he said.
Still, some immigrants who waited in line for hours failed the required written test and vowed to make an appointment to return on another date to try again.
During the last year, immigrant advocates, consular officials and the DMV have encouraged immigrants to study and offered free driver’s-test preparation classes to help applicants get ready.
About half of new driver’s license applicants in California fail the required written test, Gonzalez said.
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