California gears up to issue driver's licenses to immigrants after learning from other states

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LOS ANGELES — While tens of thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally are gearing up to apply for a long-sought driver's license in California starting Jan. 2, others are being urged to think twice.

Immigrant advocates say the vast majority should be able to get licensed without trouble but they want anyone who previously obtained a driver's license under a false name or someone else's Social Security number to speak first with a lawyer, fearing a new application could trigger a fraud investigation.

The same applies to immigrants with a prior deportation order or criminal record because federal immigration officials and law enforcement can access Department of Motor Vehicles data during an investigation.

The advice isn't meant to frighten immigrants from seeking licenses that are meant to make their lives easier — especially because many already risk getting ticketed or having their car impounded simply by driving to work or taking their children to school.

"For the vast majority of people, getting a license is a good decision," said Alison Kamhi, staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "At the same time, I think it is important people are aware there is some risk."

The nation's most populous state is preparing to start issuing driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally in a bid to make the roads safer and ease fears for more than a million people to get behind the wheel. California's program eclipses the scope and scale of those approved in nine other states, including Nevada, Colorado and Illinois.

The state hopes to avoid pitfalls faced elsewhere such as long wait times and high failure rates on the written test by hiring more staff, updating test preparation materials and hosting 180 workshops to tell immigrants what they must do to apply.

California is also requiring all new license applicants to have an appointment and will take walk-in applicants only at four newly created offices.

"We felt this would be a more orderly way of providing service," said Armando Botello, a DMV spokesman.

California expects 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses — which include a distinct marking from those issued to U.S. citizens and residents — over the next three years. Officials say they don't know if there will be an initial surge, but the number of people making license appointments more than doubled to 379,000 during the first two weeks immigrants were allowed to sign up.

Immigrant advocates said they don't foresee major problems with the rollout of the program because the state has had more than a year to prepare and an ample budget — $141 million spanning three years.

In Nevada, about 90 percent of immigrants failed the required written test during the first few weeks a driver authorization card was offered this year because they were not prepared. In Colorado, the state had no startup funding to issue licenses this year and couldn't keep pace with demand, leading to monthslong waits.

Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, said he expects California to license as many immigrants in the country illegally as the nine other states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico combined.

"If California is not able to do this right with the resources it put into this, other states will take notice," Blazer said.

State officials have touted the licenses as a boon to public safety by getting more drivers trained, tested and insured. Critics have voiced security concerns and questioned the ability of state officials to verify immigrants' identities.

Like other applicants, immigrants will need to prove their identity and residency in the state. Those who don't have a passport or consular identification card on a pre-approved list can submit other documents for review by a DMV investigator to see if they qualify.

To help applicants prepare, Mexican consulates and advocacy groups have been hosting driver's license preparation classes for months. Demand has been high, with more immigrants interested than slots available to learn the rules of the road.

Abel Rivera, a 37-year-old forklift driver, took a class to brush up on differences between driving in California and his native Mexico, where he was a truck driver for more than a decade. One thing he hadn't considered was how to drive on icy roads, said Rivera, who has an appointment in mid-January.

"The sooner the better, because it will be safer to drive," he said, adding that he hopes to qualify for better insurance coverage and avoid problems like those faced by his brother when he was pulled over and had his car impounded.

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