”A Necessity”: Undocumented Immigrants Flock to DMV at Start of License Law

The California Department of Motor Vehicles expects 1.4 million people to seek a license in the first three years of the AB60 program.

Undocumented immigrants in California began applying for driver's licenses on Friday, and one office especially set up to help these soon-to-be drivers in San Jose was bustling with customers.

Starting at 5 a.m. about 30 people had lined up outside the office on Senter Road in the chilly temps to get their permits and take their tests. By 7:30 a.m., the line had grown to more than 100, with people snaking around the corner of the building, waiting for the office to open at 8 a.m. Each had a stack of papers in their hand; the new law requires valid ID from their home country's consulate.

One of those driver hopefuls was Roselio Nicholes, who said that fears of being stopped by the police will no longer scare her.

"It's a blessing," she said.

Hermenegilo Reyes also said he is glad he won't be stopped when he gets behind the wheel. In an interview Thursday, he told NBC Bay Area in Spanish, "I have been studying. If God allows, it will be doable."

And Gilberto Flores drove away Friday morning from the San Jose office in his pickup - legally for the first time since coming to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago. "It's exciting," he said, noting that he can't wait to have ease of mind when he takes his daughter to school or go to work and "contribute to this economy."

And on Saturday, about 900 people came to the Senter Road DMV to apply for a driver's license. And like on Friday, the line wrapped around the building.

This Senter Road San Jose DMV office was the busiest processing center in the Bay Area. It was also one of the few processing centers open on Saturday. With 42 windows and 180 employees, this office was designed to handle the large number of new applicants.

"This particular driving license processing center in San Jose is unique because it's also accepting walk-in appointments," DMV spokesman Artemio Armenta said.

Other DMV offices in the Bay Area stayed open Saturday in Concord, Oakland, Redwood City, Daly City, and Napa.

The licenses are available to undocumented immigrants after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year. The California Department of Motor Vehicles expects 1.4 million people to seek a license in the first three years of the AB 60 program, which was written by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), who is from an agricultural town and home to a burgeoning population of migrant workers.

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. In fact, opponents planned to protest in Long Beach outside the office of state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) who is chairman of the Latino legislative caucus. The critics are supportive of those who have fallen victim to car accidents where undocumented drivers were behind the wheel.

And in San Jose, Ken Sligar, who was at the DMV to get his teenager a driving permit, said he had "mixed emotions" about the new law because he wants immigrants to become citizens "just like everyone else." As for giving the undocumented driver's licenses? "No, no," he said.

Another teenager, Ramon Torres, received his learner's permit after passing a 36-question test.

"I'm very happy," Torres said.

He will then have to take the driving test, and if he passes, he will receive his license in about six weeks.

Officials said they cannot predict how many people will line up immediately to apply, but the number of people making appointments for a license more than doubled when immigrants were allowed to sign up. In San Jose, authorities were bracing for up to 500,000 people who would eventually apply.

Appointments are required to apply for a license except at four newly-created DMV offices, including the one in San Jose, which features nearly 100 windows to process the expected rush of new applicants. There are three other such centers across California. In San Jose, applicants must take a 36-question test, and then take their road test elsewhere.

Undocumented immigrants interviewed over the past several weeks in San Jose said they have been studying for months and are ready to take the drivers license test. The San Jose Mexican Consulate also has been offering classes to help immigrants with the written exam.

“We have been doing, every 15 days, four hours teaching people how to take the exam,” Mexican consulate spokeswoman Nuria Marine said in an earlier interview. “We want people to pass the exam the first time, not second.”

California is one of 10 states that now provide licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. The licenses issued to immigrants without legal status will include a distinctive marking and are not considered a valid form of federal identification.

Law enforcement officials say the program will improve road safety because licensed drivers must be tested and insured. A DMV study based on 23 years of crash data found that unlicensed drivers were more likely to cause a fatal collision than licensed drivers. State insurance officials hope the change will increase the number of drivers holding auto insurance.

For Reyes, the undocumented resident of San Jose, road safety and insurance issues are not as important to him as simply being able to drive to work and get his errands done, without fear of getting arrested or deported.

"It's a necessity in this country," he said.

Combined, more than 1,800 new applicants were processed in the Bay Area, and many more are expected Monday.

Applicants have to provide documents to verify their identities and prove they live in California.

NBC Bay Area's Damian Trujillo and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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