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Immigrants seek California driver licenses

January 3, 2015

STANTON, California (AP) — Hundreds of people lined up in early morning cold Friday as California began taking driver’s license applications from the largest population of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

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.

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

California 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 couldn’t predict how many people would immediately apply, but the number of people making appointments for a license more than doubled when immigrants were allowed to sign up. Appointments are required to apply for a license except at four newly created DMV offices including Stanton.

Immigrants in the U.S. illegally have not been allowed to apply for a driver’s license in California since the state began requiring proof of legal presence during the 1990s.

A line stretched around a temporary Department of Motor Vehicles office in Stanton as immigrants pored over driver’s handbooks in preparation for written tests to obtain permits.

“This is a big opportunity for me,” said Sammy Moeung, 24, a Cambodian immigrant. “Having this is moving a step forward in life, in California and the United States.”

Moeung, who lives in Buena Park, said he arrived a little after 4 a.m. because he didn’t want to wait another day to get a license. He said he needs it to avoid having to ride his bike to work at his brother’s doughnut shop.

Law enforcement officials say the program will improve road safety because licensed drivers must be tested and insured. A study of 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, though some immigrants say they have always held insurance even though they could not get a license.

Advocates have encouraged immigrants to seek the license. But they are warning those with deportation orders or criminal records to first seek legal advice because law enforcement can access their driving records.

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