In the early hours of Friday morning, as some people trudged back to work after a holiday and others basked in a long weekend, lines had already formed outside motor vehicle offices across California. Those waiting in line came because the country’s most populous state was set to begin issuing driver’s licenses to residents, regardless of their immigration status, fulfilling the promise of a law passed more than a year ago.
The change makes California one of 10 states, along with Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, to give out licenses this way, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Yet there is an added weight to the shift occurring in California, the state with the largest number of undocumented residents in the country. State officials estimate that more than a million residents could get such licenses in the coming years, something praised by police and insurance authorities as a move that would make California’s roads safer.
California law used to require drivers to prove that they were legal residents, but the new law requires that as of Friday, they must now just prove that they reside in the state. This means presenting anything from utility bills to rental agreements. Drivers also have to prove their identity, which involves presenting a passport or identification card from a number of other countries, and pass the tests checking their vision, knowledge and ability behind the wheel. After that, the $33 fee is all that stands between them and a California driver’s license.
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About 1.4 million people are expected to apply for driver’s licenses allowed by the new law over the next three years, according to the DMV. To prepare for this surge in applications, the DMV opened new license processing centers and hired hundreds of new employees. Jean Shimoto, director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said in a statement this week that the agency “is committed to successfully implementing this new law to increase safety on California roads by putting licensed drivers behind the steering wheel.”
The state DMV emphasized its preparations as a way to show that it did not want to be caught unaware like other states that had passed similar laws but were not ready for the surge in applications that followed. In Colorado, authorities underestimated the demand for licenses, causing lengthy delays and other problems for people across the state.
There are about 2.4 million undocumented immigrants in California, more than in any other state in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Texas, which ranked second with about 1.7 million, was the only other state with more than a million such residents.
When he signed the law last year, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) praised it as a way to show that these Californians did not have to hide.
“No longer are undocumented people in the shadows,” he said. “They are alive and well and respected in the state of California.”
Brown’s office also noted that the law explicitly prohibits these licenses being used for any sort of investigation or arrest based on immigration status.
The bill was supported by the state’s police chiefs and insurance commissioner, because it meant that more drivers on the road would be tested on the laws before heading out. Dave Jones, the California insurance commissioner, said last year that the change would make “driving safer for all of us.”
For those lining up on Friday morning, the concerns were more immediate, having to do with something as routine as how to get around. Edward Wahba, who came to California from Egypt, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday he stopped driving several years ago after his license expired. He got in line not long before sunrise, hoping to get it back because “it’s too hard to live in this country without driving,” he said.